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The Dark Knight Rises – The long goodbye

The Dark Knight returns

Has it really been only four years? The Dark Knight was such an enormous success on its release in 2008, both critically and popularly, that it upended the common perception of the summer blockbuster as infantile or mindless. Already a regular on many film fans’ favourite movies lists, it has even repeatedly permeated somewhat hyperbolic lists of the “best films ever”. Regardless of negative opinions some might have, there is no denying it was a step above the Hollywood machine’s average output, and, to borrow from the Joker, it changed things.

So expectations were high, probably too high, for The Dark Knight Rises, the “final act” in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Following on from the remarkable success of The Dark Knight (and the director’s popular, inspired, flawed Inception), the loss of that film’s breakout star (Heath Ledger’s Joker is perhaps the most iconic villain of the past decade) and the need to conclude a saga that, in many ways, had only just begun, have proved to be too much for Christopher Nolan and his brother and writing partner Jonathan Nolan to live up to. But while The Dark Knight Rises is the weakest film in the trilogy that started with the brilliant but overshadowed Batman Begins, it does not let the side down and brings the story to an acceptable, if premature, close.

We pick up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne is still physically and emotionally damaged from his encounter with Harvey Two-Face and the death of his beloved Rachel. He has not put on the cowl in that time, but the myth of Harvey Dent as a hero has allowed for the streets of Gotham to be kept free of scum by strictly legal means. Wayne, now a Howard Hughesian shut-in, is led back down the path of the Batman after an encounter with a cat burglar, Selina Kyle (the traditional Catwoman, though never named as such in the film), who is discovered to have links to a conspiracy within his own company and, worse still, connections to a vicious, hulking terrorist known as Bane.

World-weary Bruce and Alfred

The film opens with an impressive if over-elaborate Mission: Impossible­-style airborne action sequence, but slows down rapidly after that, taking its time to reintroduce to us to a very different Gotham, as well as a few new characters. It’s not until the 45min mark that Wayne is back in the Batsuit, chasing Bane and evading the police. The film becomes quite gripping from here on, as Batman tackles Bane and his henchmen, with a little help from the slippery Selina, before the revelation of Bane’s masterplan brings the film to a screeching halt. Dragging out the penultimate half hour with a bloated, convoluted and frustratingly unauthentic city-under-siege scenario, it is only in its final action sequence – a massive street brawl and a pulse-pounding chase sequence – that the film fully recaptures the viewer’s attention and excitement. One can’t help but feel there was just too much story for one movie here, and the scale was simply too big for the subject.

Despite a handful of surprisingly predictable plot twists in the final act – hardly believable from the men behind Memento and The Prestige – the story is strong and the dialogue is tight. The Nolans have done a good job returning to the themes of the previous movies – identity, justice, chaos – and extending them through this film, although they touch upon little new. The simplicity of the Joker’s master stroke in The Dark Knight – bombs on two boats with the triggers in the hands of the passengers of the alternate boat – is here echoed and extended to ludicrous proportions, dragging out the sense of terror and chaos. An earlier scene where Bane detonates a bomb at a sports stadium and threatens the spectators with more to come creates far more panic and horror than what actually follows.

Linking Bane to the League of Shadows, the terrorist guild from Batman Begins, helps to bring the story full circle, and Wayne’s character arc comes to a well-executed conclusion. Perhaps The Dark Knight’s greatest flaw was taking the focus away from Wayne and Batman, but here his struggle is once again at the forefront of the drama. Christian Bale continues his restrained performance as Wayne/Batman, though has little new to show off that he didn’t in the first film. His only real challenge is in the romantic subplots, balancing attractions to femme fatale Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and charitable billionaire Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). These subplots don’t run smoothly, but Bale captures something of a man who desperately needs to be loved but cannot admit it.

Disappointingly, the refocus of attention on Wayne comes at the expense of the minor characters, Alfred (Michael Caine), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). All three were given brilliant, short, simple character arcs in The Dark Knight, but here are reduced to their basics. With the exception of one emotional scene with Bale, Caine’s Alfred is little more than a butler. Gordon, now one of the few devotees of the cult of the Dark Knight, offers unconditional, undramatic support – although Oldman gets a chance to have some fun during the final action sequence. Fox is once again just black Q.

Anne Hathaway shows off her safe-cracking figure

Thankfully the Nolan brothers have found something special in their interpretation of Selina Kyle. Treating her as a Robin Hood-esque thief who believes the rich should sacrifice all their belongings, but still wants to keep the good stuff for herself, the pair have written a strong, feisty female role that it is both witty and sexy, and Anne Hathaway pulls it off with ample aplomb. Christopher Nolan has often (and justifiably) been criticised for the weak female characters in his films, so his Selina is a welcome addition, and the strongest woman to feature in a Nolan film since Memento. The fact that Hathaway kicks plenty of ass in a skin-tight catsuit with serrated stilettos makes her fanboy gold.

More problematic is new character John Blake, a rookie cop whose smarts soon raise him to the rank of detective, and who becomes a close ally of Gordon and Batman. It’s not that he is a weak or thinly drawn character, but that the story forces him upon the viewer. Before we’ve had a chance to get a sense of the character he rattles off a story about his childhood that screams “Like me! Like me! I’m an important character!” You can feel the hand of the writers at work, and it’s disconcerting. In the hands of a lesser actor it would have been a disaster, but, portrayed by the immensely charismatic Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Blake is elevated and carried through the story. It was a close call, though.

Featuring the top half of Tom Hardy’s head as Bane

And then there’s Bane. Played by a beefed-up Tom Hardy, the massive enemy has impressive screen presence, but not much more. With his face half-covered by a breathing device, and his voice echoing like a less-sleepy Orson Welles from Transformers: The Movie, Hardy’s performance can barely be seen. His mouth is completely cloaked, so it is his eyes and hands and body that do the acting. He is never quite dull, but he is truly limited, and many of his lines, laced with Nolanesque menace, are inaudible in the troubled sound mix. In many ways this Bane is little more than the previous cinematic incarnation of the character, as a grunting henchman in the lambasted camp farce Batman & Robin.

“BAAAAAAAAANE!!!”

Production values are as high as one has come to expect, and Nolan’s camera never misses a chance to show off the glossy grit on display. The choice to film an undisguised Manhattan as Gotham is an odd one, however. Several famous landmarks can be seen in wide shots as bombs go off, including the half-constructed new World Trade Center. The illusion is briefly shattered. But the action scenes are gloriously paced and captured, particularly the high-speed chases. The fight scene choreography is a bit lax, and one punch-up between Batman and Bane is out of focus for a disappointing amount of the time. CGI is well used to show the scale of Bane’s warpath, but one longs for an on-set demolition, like the hospital in The Dark Knight.

Editing is quick and clean, although Nolan relies too heavily on flashbacks, particularly to the less-seen Batman Begins, to make sure that everyone is up to speed. Further patronising can be witnessed when a minor character is killed and the camera whips in to a close-up on their body and lingers there until people who aren’t even watching the movie have all understood that yes, this relatively unimportant character is now dead. “Have you got it yet? They’re dead. Right? Yes? Let’s move on.”

What the film lacks in balance it makes up for in style and scale, and there is so much to enjoy here, despite its exhausting length. Much of the wit of Batman Begins lost in The Dark Knight is back this time round. There are more one-liners, with two of the film’s finest lines delivered by an unexpected but well-chosen character. Wittier than The Dark Knight though it is, it takes itself even more seriously, if that can be believed. Hinting at issues such as class struggle and the Occupy movement is all well and good, but you need to back them up with conclusions that are absent here.

Still, while Nolan has delivered the weakest film in his trilogy, he has still delivered a fine third instalment, and this trilogy will be immortalised for his incredible efforts. Rises is a better film because of the films that have preceded it; the characters already developed, the music carried over, its brilliant look and dramatic style. It brings little new to the table, but it repackages the old things with a sizeable punch. While its climax is overly predictable and oddly familiar, it is a suitable denouement.

Batman’s new Batwing the Bat

Nolan’s Batman may have finished his work, but the inspiration this series of films has provided audiences with will linger, and we will no doubt see the character again soon, in this guise or in another. The bar has been set for all future Batmans, and thanks to The Dark Knight Rises it is still an imposing height to reach.

3/5

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The Dark Knight – Review

“Do you know what I am?” asks the Joker in a pink dress. “I’m like a dog chasing cars; I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it.” The demented nature of Heath Ledger’s Joker, violently obsessive in his nihilism, is the greatest indicator of how The Dark Knight is not traditional comic book fare.

Even 2005’s Batman Begins, also directed by Christopher Nolan, seems very by-the-books when compared to this dark character drama in a comic book setting. While Begins should be and has been lauded for its style and character development, it still obeys all the comic book movie rules. Just like this summer’s Iron Man, the lead hero has an enlightening experience in the Far East, realises he can do more with his life and starts to save the day before correcting an evil that he is partially responsible for.

The Dark Knight shares very little in common with similar comic book sequels. In fact, characters and actors aside, it feels like an entirely different film to Begins; a development, an improvement. The huge hype that precedes the film (attributable to its admirable predecessor and the passing of Heath Ledger, who it should be remembered was being much talked about for his performance even before his unexpected death) will not have escaped many, and given the sheer intensity of the storyline and the film’s surprising length (2 and a half hours), the film may alienate the fun-seeking public in what has been quite a crowd-pleasing summer so far.

But it is because of this maturity and ambition that it will be the most memorable film of summer 2008, and its potential failure to find a sustained audience (it will no doubt burst the banks on its opening) would suggest only that audiences are so used to being spoon-fed their entertainment that they can no longer accept anything with sophistication and class. But its success is almost assured – this is superb filmmaking.

The film begins a short time after Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale once more) is still balancing businessman, playboy and midnight avenger roles, focusing largely on the latter as he cleans up the various factions of the Gotham City mob. “Batman has no limits” he insists, but as he learned Batman’s power for good in the first film, here the limitations of his secret identity are laid out for him all too clearly.

The Joker is the one who teaches him this lesson. No longer the giggling crook of previous incarnations, Ledger’s Joker is as insane as he is genius. Like a young Hannibal Lecter with Asperger’s he robs and kills not for profit or power, nor really for fun, but because there is sport in it; because someone else must lose for him to succeed, and even if he fails he might just bring the opponent down with him. Although as cold, calculating and unpredictable as Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men (not the last reference I will be making to that film in this review), it is not that which makes him terrifying, but rather the realisation that because Batman cannot kill him he simply cannot be stopped from killing.

Stepping back from the camp and outlandish interpretations of the Joker in the past, Ledger spends the first half of the film relaxing us into the role, making us comfortable with how incredibly unsettled he makes us. As his schemes become wilder so does his performance, he begins to laugh his horrible laugh more. Jack Nicholson’s Joker created panic through poisoning the masses. Ledger’s Joker creates panic by declaring that a single innocent civilian must be killed to save hundreds, making everyone a violent vigilante. His sadism is almost cartoonish in its villainy, if it weren’t so utterly gruesome in its body count.

Between Batman and the Joker is Harvey Dent (the regularly excellent Aaron Eckhart), the District Attorney and boyfriend to Wayne’s ex, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal acceptably replaces Katie Holmes’s acceptable performance in Begins). Dent is idealistic like Wayne, but works within the system. His rise, rise and crashing fall is actually the main focus of the film, as by trying to be more of a hero like Batman he ultimately becomes a monster like the Joker, highlighting the difference between the two “freaks” in his huge character arc.

While Ledger’s name has been repeatedly (and prematurely) touted for Oscar glory, and he is admittedly excellent, Eckhart really is the soul of this film, though understandably not the main attraction. His performance is simply excellent, and often difficult to watch knowing where it will lead to. For the second time this year a man has decided life or death with the flip of a coin (Chigurh in No Country being the first, of course) and the tension it creates is not traditional summer blockbuster stuff. As opposed to the raving lunatic Tommy Lee Jones portrayed in Batman Forever (1995), where he appeared to be channelling Cesar Romero as the Joker, this Two-Face is a ghastly spectre of vengeance and chaos – the effects used to create his scarring are indescribably unpleasant, though brilliant.

Of the returning cast members all are notable improvements on already great performances, though much of this has to do with the tightness of the script. Gary Oldman is far more comfortable in the Jim Gordon role, while Michael Caine continues to excel in a role that sometimes feels as if it might have been created for him. Morgan Freeman, little more than a likeable black Q in Begins, here has enough screen time to develop the limited character of Lucius Fox into something much more than a few one-liners.

So unlike such comic tripe such as last month’s The Incredible Hulk, story and character are the main foci here. But what about the explosions and punches that many come to see this sort of film (or rather the sort of film that this is being advertised as) for? There are some superb set pieces; a scene-setting bank heist, a Mission Impossible-style infiltration, an explosive road battle and a climactic sonar-vision brawl (you think I made that up, but I didn’t). Batman equips a new suit that unfortunately appears indistinguishable from the previous one (err, it’s also black), but his new gadget of choice is the fantastic Batpod (the lovechild of a ménage à trois between a tank, a motorcycle and a massage table), which makes a jaw-droppingly awesome first appearance.

The film has decidedly less humour in it than the first film, not including the not-sure-if-you-should-be-laughing-or-squirming contributions of the Joker. The romantic subplot is inoffensive. What this film really has going for it is just how smartly it has been developed. The Nolan brothers’ script is loaded with Memento-ish detail. What would be a minor subplot in other superhero movies – a Wayne employee stumbles upon his dual life – becomes, like a beer mat in a dead man’s jacket, a pivotal cog in the story’s development. Every iota of information is relevant and connected. There is no apologising here for the story originating in an “inferior medium” – this is complex, intelligent and stylish storytelling, as mature and dark as its title implies.

Certainly it does run a touch long (the major action sequence seen in trailers ends with an hour to spare), though one would be hard pressed to find what to cut without raising the Spiderman 3 “who needs another villain” argument. The score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer is still lacking as it was in the first one, always building to a crescendo it never quite reaches. Bale’s Batman voice does become grating, and Cillian Murphy’s appearance as Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow is pointlessly brief. But beyond those there can be few complaints that aren’t simply a matter of taste, bar perhaps the potential for young viewers to be upset or disturbed by what is really quite heavy entertainment.

The hugely affecting ending will no doubt have audiences and studio execs begging for a second sequel, making ever-more tragic the loss of Ledger, but we should hope that they are not disappointed. The Dark Knight (alternative title: No Country for Bat Men ?) is the best and most memorable film to be released this summer thus far. Do not miss it.

5/5

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