Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bane: Makes a Man Take Things Over...but Heath Ledger won't let him.

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Director: Christopher Nolan

Reviewed: 23 July 2012

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

"We've got God on our side / And I'm just trying to survive / What if what you do to survive / Kills the things you love / Fear's a dangerous thing / It'll turn your heart black you can trust / It'll take your God filled soul / And fill it with devils and dust." -"Devils and Dust" by Bruce Springsteen

Batman knows that he is righteous, yet he destroyed his reputation to save Gotham from itself in the last film The Dark Knight.  Arguably, the man is crumbling inside, torn by a sense of remorse to those he's lost as well as duty to honor the lie that he has built around Harvey Dent's demise.  What is in Bruce Wayne's soul?  Has he killed the things he loves?  Has director Christopher Nolan?  I've wrestled with this film for over five days before writing this review, and barring a change of heart at my second screening, I'm declaring The Dark Knight Rises to be a misfire, a confusing barrage of plot and speechifying without enough sticking to it.  Nolan directs with very little of the stylistic energy of Inception or the propulsion of The Dark Knight.  Easily one of the most anticipated films of the year, and despite an A-level cast, cutting edge special effects, and a terrifying villain, The Dark Knight Rises sinks.

For a minute, I'm going to focus on Bane, the villain of this third film in the Nolan Batman series.  As played by Thomas Hardy, Bane resembles Darth Vader, Osama bin Laden, Sensei John Reese from the Cobra Kai in The Karate Kid with his trademark lapel-grabbing, and a He-Man Masters of the Universe character with swollen arms.  Bane's spider-like mask robs us of seeing Hardy's full face, but his voice is wonderfully high-pitched and eerie, supposedly modeled on Eastern European voices recorded in the 1920's.  However, I do have to complain if I cannot understand over 20% of the dialogue because of the way it was recorded.  Frankly, I needed subtitles or Bane.  I'm not saying do without the mask.  Absolutely not.  The mask ties Bane to Batman as well as the tradition of samurai, as well as it provides endless speculation about its functionality.  How is it keeping him alive?  Why does he need it?  What happens when Batman punches it real, real hard?  However, when the recording of a major character's voice is murky and indecipherable, Nolan has just undercut his own film.  I lost threads of major speeches because of the sound quality.  Bane's philosophies seem anarchic and revolutionary, and yet I'm not sure what drives him.  Glimmers arrive in the last third of the film, far too late in my opinion.

I'm not a Batman scholar, and I can't rule definitively on the series.  I've read that Nolan did not want to mention the character of The Joker in this film at all out of respect to Heath Ledger's memory, and that to me, again seems like a misfire and a miscalculation.  The Joker's decision to kill Rachel Dawes rocked Bruce Wayne to his core; the open-ended decision to leave Heath Ledger's Joker hanging off the scaffolding of a building, tied up and ready for Arkham Asylum begs the question, What would have happened if Bane had united with the recently freed Joker in this film?  At one moment, Bane calls the inmates of Blackgate, Gotham's most notorious prison, to join him in his revolution and they overwhelm the guards.  Did this film need a slap of Ledger's brilliant, anarchic performance as The Joker?  I say whole-heartedly, Yes!  Bane seems content during the last third of the film to stand in the shadows, retreat and withdraw, in a way that is sadly disappointing and fails to develop him as a character.  I'm endlessly impressed with his quick fighting style, Hardy's ferocious biceps, as well as his WWF-style, fur-coat wearing posture.  I'm not at all satisfied by how Bane's story line was resolved as well.  It felt like a cheat for a character of his mythos.

Here's where we are: Bane is a super-terrorist hijacking the skies above to abscond with Russian nuclear scientists and scurrying away underneath Gotham City's feet in its labyrinth of a sewage system with a cell of believers.  He bides his time as allies above ground try to ruin Bruce Wayne.  Commissioner Gordon swallows the guilt of knowing that his lie has destroyed Batman, led to thousands of arrests, yet his personal life is a shambles (wife and kid have both left him).  Cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) sneaks into Wayne Manor and lifts a pearl necklace from the weakened, cane-addled Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) who has withdrawn into hiding for the past seven years as the Batman suit gathers dust in his basement.  Kyle's dialogue pushes revolution forward ("There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne.  You and your friends better batten down the hatches..."), yet Kyle lives in a small, stylish apartment and seems an unusual mouthpiece to spout such populist, radical sentiments.  She's a thief who wants a clean slate.  Her character is most frustrating, and Hathaway does the best that she can with what she is given.  And as much as I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he struggles to overcome some poor writing and terrible dialogue as Gotham policeman Blake who works inside the captive city to free his fellow policemen trapped mercilessly underground once Bane releases a frightening attack on the city culminating in the disintegration of Gotham's Football Stadium (really Heinz Field in Pittsburgh and Hines Ward outrunning a falling-away football field).  After a particularly brutal fight to end all fights, Wayne finds himself imprisoned in the very place that birthed Bane, and his "rise" is one of the central motifs of the film.  Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine reprise their roles as Lucius Fox and Alfred, respectively, and Nolan favorite Marion Cotillard appears as Miranda, a powerful woman high up in the echelons of Wayne Enterprises which is floundering without Bruce's innovative touch.

Nolan is reaching in the film, reaching for profundity, for connection to world that we live in with banks terrorizing homeowners, with Wall Street destroying Main Street, with the 1% vs. the 99%.  Attempts are clumsily made to link the Dent Act to the overreach of the Patriot Act in our post-9-11 society.  I admire the desire to be topical and cash in on some of the rage that has boiled over in America.  However, beyond a few riotous crowds pushing the rich out onto the street, as well as some destruction, there is little sense of the chaos that has descended upon Gotham during the days of Bane's rule.  I didn't get a sense of how the populace responded to the brazen act of terrorism or Bane's order to govern themselves.  I was interested in how Commissioner Gordon and other police officers subverted Bane's rules and avoided the death squads, but not enough was ever made clear.  Fall turns into winter, and the film boils down at moment to Gary Oldman jumping onto moving trucks which are simply not as guarded and secure as they should be.  I'm still unclear who was holding the detonator.  Nolan lost an opportunity to present a fully realized universe here, the hidden, cowering citizenry of Gotham with all of their naked ambition and desires unrestrained by police or common order.

At one point, a tattoo is shown in detail on a character's back, and by tipping his hand, Nolan ruins one pleasure of this film, figuring out who is who, how they are aligned, and how it will end.  It felt very strange to see such a leading shot.  I wonder what the wisdom of that shot (and that entire sequence for that matter) was.  It makes little sense, logically or emotionally.

Bruce Wayne fights back, though older and with less knee cushioning.  He has new toys and a potential bomb/energy generator hidden underneath the city.  Some of the science is sketchy (only one scientist in the world can help design it!)  Yet, the prison sequences are strong and feed into the mythology quite well, with Batman's parallel experience in the cave as a child.  The ties, particularly to the League of Shadows from Batman Begins, are fun if not as fleshed out as I would have liked.  And Batman's Batmobile (whatever they are calling it these days) does some very trippy, wheels-flipping moves that I quite liked  The swirling wheels and changing directions took my breath away every time they did their magic on a sharp turn.  And Bane, despite the disappearance from the last third, emerges as a Byronic hero, more Beast from Beauty and The Beast or a loyal puppy, though I wish he had been fully realized throughout the entire film.

Matthew Modine is pretty awful here (Hello, Private Joker!) as a police captain more obsessed with catching Batman than stopping a Wall Street hijacking featuring Bane (kind of nonsensical), and Batman's spaceship, called The Bat, gives him even more superpowers and control, kind of taking the fun out of things.  In the original Batman, I kinda liked how Jack Nicholson's Joker pulled a 357 magnum from his side and shot down the sleek Batplane with Michael Keaton, culminating in a vertigo-inducing climb to the belfry of a modern skyscraper complete with Notre Dame-style bell.  Besides the prison tunnel and Bane's subterranean waterfall of a lair, Nolan's vision doesn't present much stylistically to draw my eye or my wonder.  Sure, I always enjoy his vision of Gotham as an amalgamation of every American city: the bridges and Freedom Tower of New York City; the lower Wacker Drive of Chicago; the football field and rivers of Pittsburgh.  Yet, there's something missing here, and it has to be energy and pacing (which feels off so significantly in the second half) as well as a sense of wonder and scale.  Nolan has transplanted the Batman from the comic books and Tim Burton's  darkly cartoonish vision into the heart of the modern urban aesthetic with serious post-9-11 undertones.  And that's fine and an amazing vision.  But, I wonder if I am alone in looking backwards to Michael Keaton acting crazy, Jack Nicholson chewing the scenery desecrating an art gallery while dancing to Prince on a boombox, as well as the original Batmobile from 1989, and just remembering how much I enjoyed watching Batman.  Really enjoyed it.  Watching it and rewatching it.  Getting a copy of VHS was a huge moment in my life.  It is unfair to hold my youthful nostalgia against Nolan's efforts, yet I wonder if I commit to re-watching the Burton films and the Nolan films where I will come out.  My heart seems to be telling me Burton.

In his pursuit of hyper-realism, has Nolan lost something in the telling of the Batman legend?  Or, is this film just a minor step backwards from The Dark Knight, a high-watermark of comic book blockbusting entertainment, but still miles above the typical Hollywood dreck?  As for this film's ending, Nolan had an opportunity to fully close a chapter forever with his sage and begin a new one.  I'll say this; I liked the opening of the new chapter, and the penultimate sequence of shots in Italy robs the film of some of its pathos and power.  There was a way to keep some open-ended qualities to that scene, and Nolan chose to avoid his ambiguous Inception spinning top.  In this film, he shows us the top falling over which to me is not as enjoyable as the mystery.  And, Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker and that character itself casts a shadow over The Dark Knight Rises in terms of performance and passion.  It is hard to escape that shadow.  But cheers to Tom Hardy for all that he did to make Bane indelible.

To be continued (after revisiting Batman, Batman Returns, as well as Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises)...

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