Friday, July 20, 2012

Rising to the Occasion

There's really no way for me to write a review of The Dark Knight Rises without first acknowledging the shooting that took place at a midnight screening here in the Denver area. It saddens me that the Denver suburbs have now twice made worldwide news with a horrible mass murder, but for the moment at least, I don't care to say much more than that. Everyone is going to deal with this event in their own way, and feel affected by it to their own degree. Discussing that might be interesting in person, but it's not something I care to go into here on the blog -- not so soon in the aftermath, anyway.

Assuming it's even possible to set that aside, let's do that and be on with business as usual.

I saw The Dark Knight Rises this afternoon, and found my opinion of it changing even on the drive home. I think that reaction had a lot to do with the fact that I rewatched Batman Begins and The Dark Knight at home just within the last week. As a result, my main reaction as I watched the new film was "this isn't as good as the first two." It made me more aware of things that weren't quite right. And mind you, I wouldn't say there's anything wrong with the new movie, but there are several things that aren't quite right.

Where the first two films did a good job placing action scenes into a reasonable, plot-advancing context, this movie sometimes felt like it was just doing things that looked cool. The opening sequence, for example, is a prolonged aerial stunt that (though having minor plot significance) didn't really need to take place mid-flight; they just had the money to do it that way.

The ultimate plan of the villain is a bit suspect. It's a "destroy Gotham" motive that echoes the first film, but for some reason, the plan is not to do it now, but later. The audience is given some nonsensical explanation about how giving people hope for a while will make it worse for them later, but this doesn't play convincingly at all for the city as a whole the way it does for specific characters in the story.

Much has been made in the press of Bane's weird voice, and having watched the movie, I feel it was a bad miscalculation on the part of the actor and filmmaker. It sounds vaguely reminiscent of every actor who ever played Mark Twain, and in two key scenes of the movie, it's actually unintelligible. When Bane grabs a microphone to taunt a stadium full of spectators, I could imagine the crowd murmuring to each other, "what did he say?" And worse, half of Bane's dialogue in his final scenes of the movie can't be understood.

The movie withholds certain information from the audience in unrealistic ways just so it can deliver surprises in the final act. Put simply, you won't believe what some characters go literally months without mentioning. And while the script does stop short of actually lying to the audience, the musical score crosses that line. I wish I could be specific without spoiling a piece of the movie, so I'll have to just say in a roundabout way that Hans Zimmer's theme for Bane deliberately deceives the audience in its portrayal of the character.

But as I said, on the drive home, I continued to think more about the movie, and I considered the good elements of it more. Thematically, the film is quite strong. It continues to explore the nature of good and evil (as the first two films did), and looks more closely than ever at crossing over the blurry line where the two meet. The story does a fine job resonating with themes of the earlier films, pulling everything together as a true trilogy, and then concluding that trilogy in a really compelling way that gives great closure to several characters.

As always, Christopher Nolan has assembled a fantastic cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, appearing in the series for the first time, is a particularly strong addition. Anne Hathaway is also quite solid as Selina Kyle, though I found her character hitting several of the same beats as Scarlett Johansson did (more effectively) in The Avengers. Tom Hardy has superb and imposing physicality as Bane, though that odd voice undercuts his efforts. Marion Cotillard also gives a good performance, though I felt as though she was working overtime to lend credibility to a character that didn't make sense on the page.

I think one of the best things about the Nolan Batman films has been the secondary characters, with veteran actors all but stealing the show. I thought it was Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox that was the MVP of movie one, while Gary Oldman's Gordon was the standout performer in movie two. Here, it's Michael Caine as Alfred. He has two incredible scenes in this movie, each of them the most emotionally powerful scenes of the entire trilogy.

And that score -- that same one I criticized for being untruthful. Well, it may be that, but it's also awesome. Loud and primal, full of brass and percussion, Hans Zimmer has written the most aggressive and effective music of the trilogy.

So, while I didn't think it as the end credits were rolling, I came around to the feeling that The Dark Knight Rises was the best of the three big superhero hero movies this summer (just edging out The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man). That said, I do still stand by the feeling that this movie is the least of its own trilogy. It's well intentioned and well thought out in the broad strokes, but is just a bit muddy in the execution, and a bit longer than it seems like it really needs to be.

Despite that, I still give it a B, and my overall endorsement.

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