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Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (Release Date: 7-20-2012)

        Writing a review for The Dark Knight Rises is like walking through a mine field. The movie's been in a two-way race for the, 'Most Anticipated of 2012,' crown with The Avengers ever since its release date was announced, and that desire and impatience has finally reached its zenith. Folks are so bat-crazy, in fact, that the Editor in Chief of the review accumulation site Rottentomatoes wrote this open letter, asking users to refrain from employing hate speech in the comments section of every negative review, eventually disabling them all together when the online abusers refused to stop. And, yes; these people almost certainly hadn't seen the movie yet. But a negative review isn't the only thing for which a critic might be subject to fiery rage; in fact, it's not even the biggest faux pas one could make. That dubious honor will belong to those who include dreaded spoilers within their reviews, wrecking an enormously secretive, highly-mysterious finale to one of the most widely appreciated film series of our time. It's a difficult task, this walking on egg shells business, and we're all about to see if I'm up to it. Welcome to my Completely, Ridiculously Spoiler Free Review of The Dark Knight Rises.

        Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) still lives in Gotham. Some time has passed since his notorious run-in with the Joker (***** *****, to be exact), a period that has seen city-wide sentiment swing wildly against the Caped Crusader ever since he took the rap for the death of Harvey Dent. Wayne is very, very sad, whereas Bane (Tom Hardy), a massive, sadistic brute with a permanently situated gas mask covering much of his face, is very, very mean. He's so mean, in fact, that, near the film's opening, he does something in some foreign country that relates to a whole lot of other somethings that he does later (don't tell Bruce, he's not supposed to know until at least 45 minutes in). Alfred (Michael Caine) is wise with an occasional joke, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) continues to fret away his existence, Morgan Freeman pops up every now and then, and a cat burglar with some seriously confusing motivations (Anne Hathaway) also joins the fun. I'd tell you what Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are doing here, but I'd probably have to kill you.

        Before I go too much further, let's go ahead, and get this out of the way: The sky has not fallen, the grass is still green, and writer/director Christopher Nolan has crafted another winner, just like literally everything he's made thus far. When given crazy dollars, and allowed gonzo creative control, I don't really think this guy's capable of a true clunker. Wally Pfister's camera work still dazzles just as much as ever, Hans Zimmer's score still pounds down furiously on your eardrums, and editor Lee Smith continues to cross-cut like a man possessed. As talented as Nolan is at concocting movie magic, much of his gift lies in knowing just who to surround himself with, and never letting go. That 'Nolan feeling,' involves a lot more people than just the geek god himself, and in Rises, their work is just as stunning as ever.

        This technical prowess, as was the case with both of Nolan's previous installments, is perfect for papering over some of the film's more problematic aspects. The most prominent of these pertains to the flick's runtime, a gargantuan 165+ minutes wherein audiences are expected to remember every last detail about every little thing. This has always been Nolan's way, trusting the intelligence and attention spans of audiences far more than his contemporary tent-pole makers would ever dare, but this is his biggest, most narratively complicated film to date (Well, it's at least in a dead heat with Inception). It takes some true mental gymnastics to keep up with, and even if you do manage to juggle all 20 balls, there's an unshakable feeling that not everything here is completely necessary, and that sheer bigness might be serving as both a means, and an end. Nolan detractors often like to bash on him for being all sound and fury signifying nothing. I've never agreed with them, but Rises certainly has moments that add fuel to their fire.

        What's ironic about this, however, is that Rises also stands as by far the most emotional entry in the Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan and his team know just how much these characters have meant to American audiences ever since 2005's Batman Begins, and they've devised appropriate, thoughtful, and even lovely conclusions to the arches of just about every player. A hushed conversation between Wayne and Alfred turns out to be the most emotionally resonant thing that Nolan has ever put to film, similarly small, wisely observed moments peppering the proceedings through out.

        As always, this Bat-apalooza boasts of an incredibly stacked cast from top to bottom. Each returning performer is now more comfortable than ever in the skin of their character, Bale, Caine, Oldman, and Freeman all now inextricable from the roles they play. Hardy, assigned the impossible mission of making folks forget about Heath Ledger, is a fun (if extremely hard to understand) baddie with intense physicality, and piercing eyes. Hathaway appears to be having more fun here than anyone ever has in a Nolan feature (They don't usually smile in Nolan movies, do they?), purring her witticisms in a sexy, down-tempo alto. Internet get-a-life-ers have been hounding Hathaway's inclusion since the day she was cast, wondering where silly-old Catwoman, and her ridiculous body suit could possibly fit into Nolan's hyper-serious universe. Turns out, she's Rises saving grace, her humorous quips with Batman adding a much needed levity as Bane goes on his lethal rampage, cracking skulls, and committing one heinous war-crime after another. Again, I'd tell you more about Cotillard and Gordon-Levitt, but yeah... death.

        And so, we arrive at the inevitable question: Is The Dark Knight Rises better than The Dark Knight? No, of course not, but why should it be? That film was a once-in-a-long-while, lightning-in-a-bottle sort of thing, benefitting from a much tighter structure, Batman's most notorious nemesis, and the single greatest performance ever given in the name of a comic book. Rises, by comparison, lacks the omni-present crackle of energy that Ledger provided his outing with, and also gets bogged down under the plethora of plot lines it's trying to wrap up from the other movies. All of that said, this is an enormous, sometimes glorious spectacle, one that operates well as its own movie, but much better as the capper to one of the densest, most challenging, and most exhilarating sting of franchise movies ever put to film. Congrats to Nolan, Bale, and everybody else involved for going out with a bang, and being awarded that rarest of Hollywood gifts: the ability to ride off into the sunset, heads held high.

Grade: B+ 

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