Sunday, July 22, 2012

I Am Batman -- The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

First things first: The Dark Knight Rises isn't as good as The Dark Knight. It contains fewer exciting setpieces and laugh lines, the middle part sags like udders on a cow, and not one soul electrifies the proceedings like Heath Ledger as the Joker. That said, lesser Nolan Batman is still Nolan Batman, and The Dark Knight Rises, for its flaws, clenches the crown of crown of 2012's best blockbuster, and I'm already making plans to see it again.

Reasonably non-spoiler plot synopsis: in the eight years that have passed since Harvey Dent died at the end of The Dark Knight, Gotham City enacted radical new laws that effectively cleaned the streets of organized crime. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has holed up in Wayne Manor as a recluse, despite the pressings of his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) to go outside every once in a while. Gotham slips back into the throes of chaos, though, when mercenary and all-around unpleasant guy Bane (Tom Hardy) shows up in town and commandeers a fusion reactor from Wayne Industries CEO Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and board chairman Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) with the intent to turn it into a nuclear bomb. At the urging of Gotham cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Wayne must take up his mantel as Batman and fight back against Bane, who holds the city hostage with his makeshift WMD, while also contending with master thief Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway).

What follows is 164 minutes of grim desperation punctuated by brief character moments, exposition, and fleet scenes of action that are over far too quickly. If The Dark Knight wallowed in bleak nihilism, The Dark Knight Rises submerges itself, holds its breath, and has you hold the stopwatch. Carefree entertainment it isn't, and only a rousing climax in the last forty-five minutes and perfect ending (yeah, I said it) save it from being pure misanthropy.

Not to say it isn't fun in places. Batman's newest toy, a hovering battle vehicle that looks like a cross between a harrier and a Maine lobster, zips around lighting up baddies and obstacles, while the Batpod makes a welcome, heavily-armed return. Hathaway's Selena Kyle purrs and snarls sarcastically, and watching her play as a wild card among two opposing sides gave me much joy. Also, the climax I mentioned in the previous paragraph is one of the highlights of the trilogy, providing action-packed thrills and emotional closure for fans who have followed Nolan's Caped Crusader since 2005's Batman Begins.

In fact, The Dark Knight Rises ties in with the first film in several important ways, referencing events and supporting characters with frequency. It feels more like and extension of Batman Begins than a sequel to The Dark Knight, though with more continuity in the story (e.g. no random turns to zombie film-making). Though not my favorite film in the saga, I'm glad The Dark Knight Rises ties into both films so well, making them all an essential and tightly-packed trilogy.

Bale is the strongest he's ever been in any of the Batman films, exuding shades of fatigue, hurt, and mingled amusement unseen by Bruce Wayne thus far. Caine steps up and makes an even bigger emotional impression as Alfred, though he disappears far sooner than I would have liked. Oldman also sits out for an extended length and is given less to do, nodding and acting knowledgeable but always keeping us at arm's length. For my money, the newcomers all give the best performances: Gordon-Levitt's dogged, honest turn as John Blake holds down the fort while Batman is offscreen, Cotillard's enigmatic charm still carries volumes - even if her performance is, beat for beat, Mal from Inception - and Hardy's Bane more closely matches the comic book's take on the character--intelligent, powerful, and not to be trifled with under any circumstances. Also, Hathaway, but we already gushed about her.

Stepping up the apocalyptic stakes are composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, who lend gravitas to the score by adding a Gothic-sounding choir to several choice moments. Though the chugging, one-note motif used for Bane never caught my ears the way past themes have, I appreciate the heightened stakes reflected in the score.

Regular Nolan editor Lee Smith, having hit his stride with Inception's cross-cutting uber-climax, scales his ambition back for The Dark Knight Rises, generally focusing on one scene at a time, though when he does get his plates spinning in time for the endgame, the result is a tense, epic-length juggling act between three different plots as they all come to a head. Not quite as dreamily-presented as past projects, but still exciting even during moments absent of action.

On his absolute best behavior is regular Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister, who photographs more and more varied settings than either of the previous films, and makes my favorite Pretty Cinematography shortcut (falling snow) look absolutely gobsmacking. Down in the dumps though The Dark Knight Rises may be, it never looks less than smashing.

The Dark Knight Rises isn't a watershed moment in cinema the way it's been built up to be, but it is absolutely good enough to wrap up one of the most acclaimed film series in the last decade or so. See it once to watch how it ends, then see it again to drink in the small details and widgets of a dense, rewarding auteur picture disguised as a summer tentpole.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

I Am the Night -- The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight might be, minute for minute, the most depressing, unsettling film I own on home video, but I rarely notice unless I'm actively looking for it. Shocking for a film whose primary antagonist likes to express himself through wanton acts of violence and nihilism, and whose closing scene of child peril and emotional wreckage is some of the rawest footage I've seen in a major studio film intent on making money.

With all of the dark and moody trappings, why do I, heavy-handed purveyor of escapist feel-good cinema, enjoy The Dark Knight so much? Tonal balance, friend. For as bleak as it gets - and make no mistake, it becomes very dire in places - there are small splashes of comic relief, a tossed-off line or an unexpected bit of comic violence (one of the only times outside of a Tom and Jerry cartoon I praise comic violence), which lessens the tension and makes the rest of its bleakness much more palatable. Throw in several exciting setpieces, and it’s easy to forget how grim The Dark Knight becomes. Spoonful of sugar, and all that.

It’s hard to talk about The Dark Knight without making comparisons to Batman Begins (or vice versa, depending on the order you first saw them). I won’t labor heavily on them, but I do want to toss off a few reasons why I prefer The Dark Knight. Aside from its surer balance of tone, the action scenes feel bigger and more satisfying (the truck chase is one of my favorite bits of action in recent movies) and the more grounded Gotham City is easier for me to wrap my head around. The Dark Knight also functions as a stand-alone narrative, and though I like the bits in Batman Begins where Bruce Wayne iterates on the Batman persona, I’m always grateful in a super hero movie when I don’t have to sit through an origin story, especially one as well-known as Batman’s. Batman Begins also lacks a big bad, a problem The Dark Knight does not have by any stretch of imagination.

For all conversations about The Dark Knight eventually turn to the Joker. I’ve seen The Dark Knight around eight or so times since 2008, and each time Heath Ledger’s smacking, mincing, casually-psychotic performance as the Joker blows me right on my ass. Ledger disappears inside of the Joker, distorting his voice, hunching his shoulders, and acting like the most charismatic bastard ever capable of murdering civilians. His hair is mankey and his white makeup is frequently unkempt; he looks the part of a so-called “agent of chaos,” and his raggamuffin appearance makes it even more unsettling when he starts killing people. Alternately dangerous and horrifyingly funny (sometimes at once, like his magic trick), Joker is the biggest example of why The Dark Knight works as well as it does. Mark Hamill’s Joker is more fun as well as frequently threatening, but Ledger is one memorable mofo, and The Dark Knight would be a lesser film if he were absent.

Not that Christian Bale and co. have been slouching since the previous film. Granted, Bale doesn’t portray as many sides of Bruce Wayne as he does in Batman Begins, but his fake playboy persona is even funnier in his pushy, clueless mannerisms and his straight non-Batman Bruce feels more lived-in and natural. Oldman’s tension with Batman as Commissioner Gordon grows slowly over the course of The Dark Knight, and he’s given more to do and more chances to perform. Michael Caine’s Alfred and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox hold steady with typically great character work, and Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes in much bouncier, sassier tones. Nearing Heath Ledger’s level is Aaron Eckhart as fallen D.A. Harvey Dent, whose journey from Gotham’s white knight to the villain Two-Face is made more painful by Eckhart’s convincing turn as both a classy, nice guy and angry, vengeful killer with an Anton Chigurh-esque penchant for coin-tosses. If I had one minor complaint, it’s that Eric Roberts’ Sal Maroni fails to make me forget about Tom Wilkinson, but actors that are Tom Wilkinson are much rarer than those that aren’t, so I’m hardly bothered by the change-up.

Even more than Batman Begins, Hans Zimmer and James Howard Newton outdo themselves with the soundtrack for The Dark Knight. In addition to Batman's previous theme, which carries over from Batman Begins with no decrease in its heroic glory, the pair introduces Joker's... well, the word "theme" implies a piece of music that can be hummed, and there is no merrily whistling Zimmer's razorblade-on-piano wire motif from when The Joker is onscreen. Like the character himself, the low, scraping din is noncompliant with the rest of the surrounding score, and creates an unease that meshes perfectly with Joker's dangerous, unorthodox effect on Gotham City.

Added to cinematographer Wally Pfister's box of tools is the IMAX camera. Every establish shot and most of the important action setpieces appear with heightened clarity and a changed aspect ratio, and the result adds not only better picture quality, but also to the sense of scale and scope in The Dark Knight. The picture at times is HUGE, and give the movie a greater heft, especially during the scenes in Hong Kong and on the ending ferry when the aspect ratio keeps changing.

Editing keeps the kinetic, discontinuous style from Batman Begins, and now it, too, has new tricks. Ramping up the tension are three sequences that cross-cut between two or more separate, parallel conflicts, and watching each section tighten and build to a head gives The Dark Knight a more active, grander feel, though the emotional build-up watching so many conflicts causes The Dark Knight to feel every minute of its runtime, while Batman Begins flies on by. Still, the three-way conflicts all feel so active and busy with incident that The Dark Knight never overstays its welcome.

A quick word on the dialogue. I recognize that The Dark Knight contains more self-referential, self-consciously “profound” dialogue, and that I should, by merit of its own awareness of how “profound” it is, spit on every “He is the hero we deserve” turn of phrase it throws at me. Eff that. Like the editing and score, it adds to the heightened reality and grandiosity of The Dark Knight while never jumping ship of posturing. My favorite passage of dialogue, which took me more than a few viewings to first notice?

Dent: “You’ve known Rachel her whole life?”
Alfred: “Oh, not yet, sir.”


The Dark Knight is the best film based on a comic book of all time, and one hell of an act for any summer tentpole to top (including, from what I’ve read so far, The Dark Knight Rises). Both exciting to the more lizard-like portions of my brain and imbued with heavy, thoughtful ideas, The Dark Knight operates as both blockbuster entertainment and art house reflection, and how many movies can claim that, ever?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

I Am Vengeance -- Batman Begins (2005)

I want to get something out of the way before I start in earnest: Batman Begins is a film whose appeal, while not eluding me per se, is diminished compared to the gobs of unfettered praise and nice words it has been steeped in since 2005. I like it, and I enjoyed it more so than ever during my most recent viewing, but I don't think it's a film I'd casually pick to watch on a night off the way I would, say, The Dark Knight. For my tastes, it's humorless and lacks excitement, requiring a bit more investment to "get" anything out of it than my favorite films, which doesn't jive well with my escapism-based film-watching habits--consider this my acquiescence to being a total wuss.

Now that I've said my piece, we can talk about what Batman Begins does right, for it does an awful lot of things right. Made during a time when super hero films weren't known for their quality or depth, even in post-Spider-Man 2005, Batman Begins not only treats each member of its large and distinguished cast with respect, but also (and you'll excuse the implicit smacks of superiority I'm radiating) like actual movie characters. Actual movie characters from an actual good movie. Toss away the cape and cowl, and you have a character study about a man's search for identity after a childhood trauma, and the lengths he goes to find and maintain that identity. It's methodical, serious, and as concerned with probing character questions as it is with inventing new, explosive set pieces; here is a film where Batman first appears no less than an hour into its 140 minute runtime, and we don't mind at all.

First a bit of plot, because maybe you haven’t seen it in a few years. Batman Begins tells how Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy and Gotham’s “favorite son,” becomes a symbol for justice in an effort to save his home city from tearing itself apart by crime and corruption. Batman Begins can be broken into three delineable sections: Bruce Wayne’s travels and early childhood trauma, Bruce Wayne “builds” the Batman persona, and Batman’s shift from fighting organized crime to repelling the League of Shadows. The middle “learning” section is the most satisfying, showing Wayne iterating on crime fighting methods and learning as he goes. It’s also the most “realistic,” showing Batman taking on the mob before things go off the rails in the third act, but the tendency towards realism suits Batman Begins, more so than Cillian Murphy arbitrarily riding a horse, anyway.

One of the most fascinating things about Batman Begins is how it takes all of Batman's well-known gimmicks (bat costume, utility belt, creed not to kill people) and makes them all traceable parts of the character, and their presence in Batman Begins is not just justified but necessary. Bruce Wayne dresses as a bat not to obscure his identity, but because he wants to be an Idea in the minds of criminals as much as he wants to be a solution to Gotham's civic ails. Like I said earlier: respect. Show me all of the scenes of a hero sewing his super suit that you want, but I need to know why he puts it on in the first place, and Bruce Wayne decision to strap on a cape and cowl feels as natural as Rocky's decision to get in the ring with Apollo Creed.

Part of this credit must go to Christian Bale, who juggles no less than four personas of Bruce Wayne over the course of Batman Begins, all of them distinct and convincing. My favorite contrast is during the first forty five minutes, which crosscuts between hardened Bruce Wayne training with the League of Shadows and bitter twentysomething Bruce Wayne contemplating killing his parents’ murderer. Small moments of regret and pain are sprinkled liberally throughout Wayne’s time onscreen, helping add to Batman’s plausibility.

Bale is one of many strong performances by a distinguished cast of big names and bit parts. Reliable standbys like Michael Caine, Tom Wilkinson, and Morgan Freeman all paint their characters in large, comic book-y strokes (I love Wilkinson’s choice to play Falcone as a 1930’s mob boss), while Gary Oldman’s weary, idealistic portrayal of Gotham’s only honest cop helps ground Batman’s existence and necessity in Gotham. The best in show, though, goes to Cillian Murphy as Dr. Nathan Crane; strung-out, uptight, and always radiating the sensation that he might go for your neck at any moment--and that’s before he takes his glasses off. Murphy’s Crane is off-kilter, unsettling menace, and it’s a damn shame that Batman Begins disposes of him so early into its climax.

Batman Begins builds a solid thematic groundwork, arguably the hardest part of a comic book film, leaving the rest of its filmmaking bits to fall neatly into place. In particular, I am a fan of the editing, which eschews straight continuity for internal rhythm. Watch how the cuts interact with the the emotional beats and how each shot seems to start and stop during a moment of climax ("quitting while it's ahead," I called it in my head). Combined with the use of establish shots as action cuts (notice how the camera never stays stationary when shooting wide shots of locations), Nolan and editor Lee Smith give Batman Begins a momentum that makes its 140 minutes seem as fleet as a Bugs Bunny short.

I think I like the editing so much because of it works with the music. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's horn-and-cello theme used for Batman operates much like Christian Bale's Batman: subdued and somber with a touch of heroic bravado, with a small nod to Danny Elfman’s work on the previous Batman films without outright quoting from it.

I do have a few gripes, though. I've never cared for the way Gotham is portrayed in Batman Begins; its opulent high-rises living so close to the glorified shantytown of the Narrows strikes me as a bit too fantastical, and though its Urban Hellhole motif is a feature and not a bug, I find it repelling and not much fun to look at. Speaking of fantastical, I always wonder how the microwave weapon stolen by Ra's al Ghul is supposed to vaporize all nearby water while leaving nearby human beings (which, I gather, are anywhere from 50-65% water) unscathed. Lastly, I always get a bit twitchy during the last half-hour, mostly because the carefully constructed reality of Gotham is thrown out the window in favor of zombie-film sensibility.

Still, it’s the first film to nail why Batman picks up his uniform and fights crime, and it takes no emotional shortcuts getting there. Batman Begins is a film I appreciate more as a piece of craftsmanship than I do a transporting piece of fiction, but what fine craftsmanship it is.