Friday, August 03, 2012

'Rises' ends Nolan's Batman trilogy brilliantly

Director Christopher Nolan completes his dark, reality-based "Batman" trilogy with "The Dark Knight Rises," which makes good on its title. Nolan raises a bleak film into something hopeful and uplifting.

Starting with 2005's "Batman Begins" and continuing with 2008's "The Dark Knight," Nolan has created a version of the Batman universe that, relatively speaking, is believable. The more fantastic aspects of the characters have been removed and replaced with more plausible variations. "Dark Knight Rises" asks for some suspension of disbelief, but far less so than your average superhero film.

Nolan, who co-wrote the films with his brother Jonathan and David S. Goyer, has ingeniously taken various elements of Batman lore and combined them in a way that remains faithful to the source material even when altering the details.

The film picks up eight years after the events of "The Dark Knight." Batman (Christian Bale) has taken the fall for the horrific actions of Harvey Dent, the district attorney who was driven mad by the Joker. Dent was seen as Gotham's savior, and, with that image preserved, organized crime was swept out of the city.

With Batman retired and the love of his life dead, Bruce Wayne has become a crippled recluse stalking the dimly lit halls of Wayne manor as Alfred (Michael Caine), his loyal butler and confidant, looks on with evermore concern.

Wayne is brought out of hiding when a cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) breaks into Wayne manor. Her actions turnout to be connected to the schemes of a brilliant terrorist named Bane (Tom Hardy), who has his sights on the destruction of Gotham and Batman. To say more would start getting into the realm of spoilers, but a look back at "Batman Begins," while not necessary, would certainly be helpful.

One of the film's primary themes is whether there's such thing as a good lie. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) was able to clean up Gotham, but that admirable deed is hollow as it was based on a lie. Similarly, a lie Alfred told to protect Wayne's feelings may have done more damage than good. Secrets have a way of turning things rotten from the inside, out and Bane exploits that.

Bane's plot against Gotham brings Batman out of retirement, but Wayne has underestimated Bane, who proves to be a more than worthy adversary both mentally and physically. Comic book fans will know what happens between Batman and Bane and, yes, Nolan unflinchingly shows it. Hardy, his face almost entirely obscured by a mask, gives a deceptively nuanced performance. Just with his eyes and body language, he creates a formidable, frightening villain.

There are other characters at play here as well. Marion Cotillard plays Miranda Tate, the new head of Wayne Enterprises, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays John Blake, a young noble cop, Matthew Modine plays an older glory-seeking cop, and Morgan Freeman is back as Wayne's gadget man.

That's a large cast, but Nolan does a superb job juggling the characters and how they all intertwine. Nolan is a filmmaker who takes time to develop his themes and characters. The film clocks in at two hours and 45 minutes, but the length is never noticeable as Nolan doesn't waste a single minute. From frame one, the film engages and begins building a nearly unremitting sense of dread and tension.

This is a film made on a huge scale. Nolan, unlike Michael Bay and other manic directors, doesn't edit his action scenes into confusing seizure-inducing messes. The film's stunning set pieces include an extraordinary opening heist in which one plane hijacks a smaller plane. There's a lot of screen time for the Bat-Pod and The Bat, Batman's new flying contraption, both of which are exceptionally cool.

Nolan also includes plenty of small, quiet moments. Most of the film is structured as Wayne interacting with a series of different characters each one, in their own way, helping him on his journey to not only save Gotham, but himself.

Bale gives his best performance yet in the series. His Wayne is a brooding, tortured man who has lost sight of who he is. Watching Bale play off this exceptional cast is just as thrilling as any of the elaborate action sequences.

Hathaway, who is playing Catwoman, but is never referred to as such, is fantastic. She provides a sultry, sarcastic cynicism to the film. She's hard, but not lacking compassion and neither a clear hero or villain, which brings a nice ambiguity to the character. Her scenes with Bale, as both Wayne and Batman, have a genuine spark.

Gordon-Levitt is also strong, particularly in a scene in which he confronts Wayne about a shared moment in their past. An interesting dynamic develops between Blake and Wayne that pays off in a big way.

Caine is heartbreaking as his Alfred struggles to watch Wayne go down a path he can no longer support. Freeman provides light, and necessary, comic relief. Oldman, once again, gives a subtle performance as the guilt-ridden commissioner.

What distinguishes "The Dark Knight Rises" from the average blockbuster is that, in spite of its massiveness, it is a deeply personal and intimate film. This is the perfect balance of entertainment and substance.

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