December 5, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: The Dark Knight Rises

by Vadim Rizov

The Dark Knight Rises

The overriding theme of Christopher Nolan's movies is a gloss on Guns 'N Roses: "Use your illusion." Guy Pierce's self-deluding Memento protagonist precedes Al Pacino's cop in Insomnia, whose titular sleeplessness makes it similarly impossible for him to separate truth from paranoid misperception. The Prestige places illusion front and center as a tale of dueling magicians, while Inception concerns implanting false memories to achieve desirable results. This interest extends to Nolan's Batman trilogy: not so much Batman Begins, but certainly The Dark Knight, in which the Caped Crusader agrees to let Gotham City think he's the bad guy for their own protection.

The Dark Knight Rises considers the fallout from following Axl Rose's advice. At its opening, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has entered his Howard Hughes recluse stage. His preoccupation during recent years has been developing a nuclear fusion project designed to provide cheap, sustainable and environmentally friendly fuel. The project was locked up when Wayne realized the gizmo could be used as a nuclear bomb, and the Dark Knight has retreated from the world both personally and professionally. Wayne's disappointed liberal funk has to be cast off when Gotham is menaced by Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked menace who speaks with an Oxford don's plummy voice. (Hardy should narrate every episode of "Frontline" in character.)

The Dark Knight Rises

Bane talks like a class warrior out of the Tea Party's worst nightmares. First he raids Wall Street, then he turns off bombs citywide, makes speeches and turns Gotham over to The People, encouraging them to pillage the houses of the rich and hold vengeful show trials. If Bane's rhetoric rings hollow, it's still appropriate that his nemesis is an angry billionaire. But it's hard to argue for The Dark Knight Rises as some kind of conservative manifesto given the slimy corporate boardroom machinations of John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) and the "Scooby-Doo"-like revelation that one of Bane's helpers is also a member of the 1%. Rather than making any coherent statement (liberal or conservative) about business, corruption and tension stemming from economic inequality, Nolan just seems very agitated about the French Revolution: after Bane's reign of terror ends, the movie caps off with a pointed reading from A Tale of Two Cities.

Where normally it's all too clear precisely what Nolan's theme is, The Dark Knight Rises is surprisingly inscrutable (i.e., a mess). It's also goofy as all-out. Much was made of how un-comic-book-y The Dark Knight was, eschewing an elaborate origin story for The Joker and spending minimal time on Two-Face in favor of lots of Heat-aping helicopter cityscapes. The Dark Knight Rises, however, is very comic-book-y (in the pejorative sense), spending a lot of time on Bane's backstory, which looks through squinted eyes like Temple of Doom as lots of vaguely dark-skinned foreigners stand around chanting in the midst of boys'-adventure desert landscapes. The previous film's car chase is revisited, lengthened and tricked out with new Batmobile gizmos, like a Roger Moore-era James Bond with shiner tech.

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises is overstocked with both exposition (continuously, everything stops to deliver massive quantities of largely useless information) and action. Recovering a little from the incoherent, sludgy setpieces of Inception, Nolan does a fine enough job of keeping everyone's positions clear throughout the chases, even while introducing new inexplicable frills. These fillips are both dramatic and visual. E.g.: though the theatrical frame expanded vertically from widescreen to full-screen IMAX to accommodate Gotham's skyscrapers for spectacle's sake, you also got Christian Bale lying in bed in this format. Certainly his chiseled frame is a blockbuster special effect of its own—recall the shameless money shot of Wayne taking off his shirt in Batman Begins—but Nolan's way of showing Bale off is conspicuously odd.

Sometimes the bad judgments are even stranger: in a movie that cost at least $250 million, it's startling to watch the finale flunk a very basic editing task. A ticking time-bomb is being driven around the city, and basic principles of suspense are observed by intercutting the timer's countdown with Batman running around being violent/awesome. Yet the cuts make no sense: five minutes' passage on screen leads to only a 30-second difference on the clock, while 30 seconds onscreen might suddenly result in five minutes being shaved off the timer, an inexplicable and easily amended error.

The Dark Knight Rises

Shortly after The Dark Knight came out, critic Ty Burr reported that at a memorial service, he'd been approached by a slew of teenagers and college kids wanting to know if, in his professional opinion, this was the new greatest film of all time. The Dark Knight Rises isn't as slickly entertaining, and it doesn't seem to have shaken multiplex audiences up as much. But if hundreds of millions must be thrown at summer tentpole films, better an eccentrically stupid wreck like this than streamlined blandness. First comes exasperation, then—as the pricey chases and baffling missteps keep coming in equal measure—amusement at the sprawling excess.

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Posted by ahillis at December 5, 2012 9:07 AM