Thursday, July 26, 2012

SHOOT REVIEWS: The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises, Disturbs and Satisfies - by Nick van der Leek

Catwoman: You don't owe these people any more! You've given them everything!
Batman: Not everything. Not yet.

The good news is that the world's favorite comic book franchise is back, and arguably the world's best filmmaker has once again delivered the goods (or should that be, the Bats).  The box office hasn't disappointed either: The Dark Knight Rises, filmed on an estimated budget of $250 million,  hauled the third largest opening of all time, at $160.9 million. That was just higher than the debut of The Dark Knight in 2008 which took $158 million. By 24 July, just 5 days after opening, its worldwide takings had exceeded $286 million (and it hasn't even opened in South Africa yet).  Even so The Dark Knight Rises' opening is the highest US debut, for a non-3D film, of all time.

According to the UK's Guardian newspaper: ...the film may yet end the year as... second only to Joss Whedon's The Avengers, which opened in May...the current incumbent, with $1.45bn [is] a figure which also makes it the third-highest grossing film of all time. The Avengers also holds the top spot in the table for biggest US weekend openings, with $207.4m, followed by the final instalment in the Harry Potter franchise (with $169.2m).

But isn't it ironic that both this film and its predecessor are associated with macabre and tragic realities? Firstly the death of Heath Ledger, from a combination of exhaustion, insomnia and over-the-counter medication, and secondly the more recent mass killing in a Colorado cinema (during a premiere of the The Dark Knight Rises) by a youngster who seemed to see himself as a sort of 'Joker' antihero. Weirdly, James Holmes seems also to have been caught up in a fantasy world of computer games, prescription medication and insomnia.  Both are all too common clips out of the editorial of modern living.

The 'Joker' shooting deserves (briefly) a closer look. Firstly, it's believed that the shooting lowered box office takings by between $20 - $40 million.  Holmes, a PHD dropout, booby rigged his apartment with intricate and sophisticated bombs. The loner (who did an internship at the prestigious Salk Institute) and was a student of Neuroscience appears to be smart but mentally unstable. Just prior to his arrest Holmes dyed his hair a bright orange. There may be a reason for these real world parallels to Nolan's cinema craft: Master storyteller and filmmaker Christopher Nolan (Inception, Memento) has dedicated The Dark Knight Trilogy to realism.

That being said, it's nevertheless not real.  The film is set, after all, in Gotham, not New York or Chicago.  Regarding this, Nolan says, "That gives you a very interesting world to be able to play with in a very heightened way. In a very operatic way.  These are larger than life characters and I very much enjoy tapping into the operatic sensibility of that. And really trying to push the audience, and the audiences emotions, into extreme directions...using your extreme characters.  So that naturally from that you're aiming for a sort of mythic status."

Christian Bale has also noted Nolan's uncanny ability to render characters created in 1939 as topical in today's cinema.  In fact, during shooting of an Occupy-type scenario, Bale says, a few blocks away the real thing was happening. 

South African critic Barry Ronge says he enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises, but that he was not completely overwhelmed by it.  "I thought Christopher Nolan had brought the same kind of quality and darkness  to the whole thing.  I thought the new characters...were there, but I thought it was quite a tough movie to follow."

Maybe.  I was, I have to admit, sometimes 'overhwhelmed' by this film.  What I mean is that I felt my whole body tingle, thanks in part to a brilliant score (more on that later). I don't think it's a film that needs to be listened to as much as felt.  It resonates more than it needs to be read.  And it is very large and worth watching a number of times to fully absorb.

Is Rises Better?

Nolan's "Intelligent Blockbuster" formula appears to work wonders both with cinema audiences and critics. In fact Nolan's filmography represents a string of acclaimed films that sit at the top of the rankings on IMDB (his recent crop of films, including Memento, are rated between 8.6 and 8.9/10). Rotten Tomatoes gives The Dark Knight a staggering 94%. So the question, understandably, on everyone's lips is this: Is The Dark Knight Rises as good as The Dark Knight? Although IMDB currently rate The Dark Knight Rises as 9.1/10, the answer is no. Is it worth seeing? [Scoff]. Absolutely.

Unfortunately South African audiences don't have the opportunity to see this film in all its glory since there is no longer a single operating IMAX theatre in the country (much of the movie was shot using extra large format IMAX cameras).

The Dark Knight Rises is 2 hours 44 minutes long, and I think it is once again a sign of topnotch moviemaking and stupendous visuals, as well as creative rendering of the Batman mythos, that makes the film seem no longer than the usual 90 minutes. In short, Nolan is on form.

I have a copy of Frank Miller's Dark Knight graphic novel. Nolan obviously takes a little (very little) inspiration out of it. There's Bruce Wayne with a walking stick, a moustache, his furniture covered in sheets and collecting dust. There's not much more but in another sense, there is plenty more. Because Nolan's interpretation rings beyond true, it resonates with our private hopes and fears, our sense of love, loss, abandonment and betrayal. Instead of giving away plot points as many reviewers are prone to do, I'm going to do something slightly less painful (but painful nonetheless) and share a few personal insights.

Anne Easy on the Eye

I found reassurance in the film, in the way Bruce Wayne is portrayed as wounded, hurting (he seems older, and uses a walking stick). His burdens appear to have weakened him in a real way. And while he may be forgiven for retreating, and brooding, given the injuries to his psyche, reputation and so on, he needs what we all need when we find ourselves having become anti-social for any length of time. An incentive. Anne Hathaway, who plays a very easy on the eyes cat burglar, provides some.

Michael Caine as Alfred provides an unexpectedly touching performance in this iteration. He also makes a comment to his master that I found very compelling. It has to do with choosing to both face and let go of the past, and doing what may not be very difficult at all, simply reaching out - by choosing - to live a happier life. The film does examine this process seriously, and with measured gravitas, seems to suggest that whilst it is very well for an outsider to clearly see that when we need to get out more, to do so is quite different. A process of readying ourselves is necessary, and when we are ready, only we can know. But the belief and standards and desire need to be in place before that moment can be recognised.

So there is a beautiful montage in the final third of the film that presents Bruce Wayne with an opportunity (with a time limit) to exit his prison. It may be one of his body, or mind, or spirit, but it is probably all three. Liberation requires a special ingredient. I'll leave it to the film to show you what it is.

Bane is no Joke

Bane, played by Tom Hardy, is a compelling character. Whilst he has a tough, gripping persona, he's some way off the carefully considered and brilliantly portrayed Joker, and whilst I've been led to believe his performance via his eyes - since his face is partially hidden behind a mask - is riveting, I didn't feel it so much. That's okay, there are plenty of strong performances by Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox and newcomer Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing a rookie cop (and perhaps more). Bale's Batman is another right on the mark performance. Good, resilient acting by a strong cast.

There are plenty of interesting surprises, but suffice it to say, almost every frame is a work of art. It is the touchy feely/hyper realism combination that Nolan balances so well that makes this another top quality film. If The Dark Knight is worth 9/10, The Dark Knight Rises probably deserves 8.5/10. Ironically, if there had been no The Dark Knight, Rises would probably score higher because comparisons are inevitable.

In a similar fashion to Ridley Scott's use of plot and visuals to convey deeper metaphors in Prometheus, Nolan uses similar devices to demonstrate Bruce Wayne's inner world. The ending has more than a few surprises, and overall the film more than satisfies. But if the story fails - whether to revive those lacking in motivation, or fire up the depressives in the audience, or stimulate those pining for better days (all unlikely) - the score deserves credit for being vivid to the ear, and moving to the body. The manner in which Nolan goes about wrecking a modern city is disturbingly beautiful.  But if what you see doesn't move you, close your eyes. Be assured, whatever happens in those 164 minutes, something will rise.

SHOOT Score for The Dark Knight Rises: A solid 8.5/10

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