Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises, Pros and Cons

My usual start to any blog entry, apologies for not having written anything for ages...

I saw Dark Knight Rises yesterday evening and thought of writing a few words about it as soon as I got home. Then I decided to wait a little and to let my thoughts digest a bit before spewing forth. So here, about 15 hours after I walked out of the cinema, are some observations.

I texted a couple of friends with spoiler-free "reviews" on the way out of the cinema (in fact even before I was out in the street) - one word each, "WOW". But then I had to climb down a little and say that while this film is awesomeness on a stick, the stick is not quite as long or sticky as the first two entries in the trilogy - having re-seen them in the last couple of days I still can't decide whether I prefer Batman Begins or the Dark Knight - they each have elements to recommend over the other, but at this stage I would have to consider this the weakest - though given the incredibly high benchmark set by the first two, it's still one of my top movies of this year!

What follows firstly are some general spoiler-free observations, and then a few minor spoilers followed by some detailed plot niggles which will by definition be spoiler-rich. Beware of warnings and scroll down only as far  as you dare! (some spoilers will be hidden behind black-on-black display so you have to highlight the text to see).

First and foremost, Tom Hardy as Bane is just astonishing. It's received wisdom that meaningful acting behind a mask is difficult, or even nigh on impossible. With half of his face concealed by Bane's inhaler and with his head shaved smooth, all Hardy had to work with were his eyes. And his distorted speech, in an odd accent-from-nowhere-or-anywhere, should have been really difficult to follow, and yet I for one could catch every word and every nuance. I understand from an interview with Chrtistopher Nolan that this was entirely Hardy's doing and he deserves every plaudit for it. (That said, while Bane's background and origins are gone into in very fine detail, the exact nature of his inhaler and what he's inhaling are given no exposition at all.)

On the subject of Bane, another observation: with just two exceptions, if my memory is correct, Bane is only every shown from below, making him look even more massive, and pretty much literally, larger than life. By contrast, in those moments when we see him from above, he really does look small and puny - deliberately so. I realise this is Film Directing/Photography 101 but it is really effective and  shows exactly how story-telling can be enhanced by clever camera angles rather than excessive use of CGI (though I expect a little was involved here and there) - all glory to Nolan and his regular DoP Wally Pfister!

In fact, the cast did an amazing job all told, and the Nolans pulled off quite an amazing stunt by peppering the screen with a huge number of characters, but with a few exceptions (see spoiler section below) they were well drawn from the moment of their entrance and they all had a very good reason to drove the story forward. Given almost every major character in this film has a sidekick or assistant of some kind, that's no mean feat! And considering we are given at least four separate narrative strands within the first 40 minutes or so, it's down to intelligent writing and direction that they all come together in a largely satisfactory fashion (not to mention bringing in several other strands from the earlier two films in due course, too!)

Without giving anything away, the two final scenes making up the end sequence (I don't remember in which order they come, both are awesomely done) really counter the bleakness of the foregoing almost three hours with hope for the future - depending on how you look at them. You could also think of them as just wishful thinking. Another master stoke of Nolan's genius direction and writing, it's all open to interpretation.
One thing I really miss from the previous films is more of the Nolan brothers' pitch-black humour. Dark Knight Rises is not entirely without quips both visual and spoken, but there are considerably fewer than before and I think the film suffers for it. The nature of the story is so bleak that the occasional little pick-me-up would really have  been helpful. I sniggered or laughed a few times but apart from one occasion, I realised that nobody in the packed auditorium had  had a similar reaction.

Something I found wanting even as I watched were the hand-to-hand fight sequences. I won't go into details for want of spoilers but these sequences never seemed to go anywhere other than their immediately obvious conclusion, story-telling 101, and the stunt choreography seemed somewhat wanting given what we've seen in the last few years in the Bourne or Bond films . This was a bit of shame, coming from the man who'd made Memento and Inception. That said, Lucius Fox's gadgets are just incredible, whether old, new, or old ones given a few tweaks, and do some astonishing stunt work. If it's possible, even more so than the first two films, all of these gadgets look like they belong in the real world and should exist, whether or not they come in black!

One problem I have with this film (a bit like the latter Bourne or Bond films) is that is is possible to have too many plot twists. After a while, you end up going back on yourself,  and that does the audience no good at all. Again, coming from the writer/director of Memento and Inception, which had astonishingly tricksy and convoluted plots, this was not a very good move. The big plot question throughout the film is, who is pulling whose strings, and I for one went a bit WTF when all was made clear, not least because I genuinely saw it coming and was disappointed that this is all it was. I certainly didn't expect it to be greeted as a major revelation! (I think I've seen too many modern spy films!)

That said, oddly enough, for an intelligent film director who unlike most others chooses to accept that his audience might have more than two functioning grey cells between them, there were a few too many knowing nod-winks to those paying attention - it would have been better if they hadn't been quite so blatant or written quite so large! (minor kind-of-spoiler that everyone can see coming from a mile away anyway but I'll black it out, highlight the box to see: In particular,  Robin's big reveal left me groaning rather than smiling - unlike the character's smirk: it really, really wasn't necessary to bang us on the head with it!)

Which brings me on to the music. Despite being musically illiterate, I am fairly sensitive to the use of music in movies and on television. I've never really been a fan of Hans Zimmer, his orchestrations or  the way he uses music, but in the other two films, his excesses were undercut by the presence of co-composer James Newton Howard (Zimmer scoring the action while Howard dealt with the more personal drama). Here he goes out full throttle and some of his cues, especially at moments of major plot revelations, are straight out of cartoon composition, banging us on the head musically blaring out THIS IS IMPORTANT, PAY ATTENTION. Bleurgh.

Read on at your peril, specific and detailed plot descriptions will follow!

By way of spoiler space, here's a kitty...

and some bats

On with the spoilers which will get more spoilerific as I go on...

I said above that the characters are all well-rounded and have defined functions to play in the story and personal dramas. I was utterly baffled by the Nolans' decision to write Alfred out of most of the movie though. While I can understand the notion of leaving Bruce Wayne totally alone and with his spirit broken, I just don't see it as part of Alfred's character to leave Wayne Manor - and Gotham - on the flimsiest of pretexts. Wayne is presumed dead at least three times during the course of the movie by some sub-set of the players, and of course Alfred's speech about his absence during the events of Batman Begins becomes prescient. But for Alfred to disappear completely and not try to keep contact with Fox or otherwise try to help Gotham in its hour of greatest need - or provide minimum backup for Wayne, if not Batman - just rings entirely false. Yes, he berates himself at the graveside but to quote another English superhero in a uniform, it's just not good enough!

As with any superhero movie, I remain perplexed by the astonishment on anyone's face (not least SuperCop James Gordon's) at the revelation of Batman's true identity. Just far too corny for words in a film which otherwise eschews the corniness and cheese which come with superhero territory!

And the death of a certain female character was just ... insipid. As some people know, I'm part of an  am dram group here in Birmingham and our last performance included several of us dying on stage.  I must say we all did a considerably better job of it than this distinguished personage.

I am equally baffled by the general population of Gotham City which succumbs to Bane's invitation to revolution and anarchy. As I said above, I dislike being bashed over the head with allegories and parallels but the fall of the Roman Empire and French Revolution (storming the prison, come on!) were just a bit too far for me. And then the majority of the population just sit there for five months doing... nothing. And where are the women (except for that single character we see coming out of her front door at the end)?

As, apparently, does the entire Gotham City Police Force, caved into their subterranean abyss. Who after five months of living on apparently nothing, come tearing out of the ground all together, in fine fettle, raring for a fight, every one of them to a man (am I the only one to note the complete absence of any women officers at all?) shaved clean and wearing pristine uniforms...

I really missed some kind of view into the daily life of Gotham under siege from within, and why did nobody apparently care to discover who the holder of the detonator was? In a film a about paranoia and anarchy, why not ramp up the paranoia within the population? After all, the speech in the stadium was geared up precisely to engender it? This was fairly well foreshadowed in the middle movie of the trilogy, but seems to have gone nowhere. Shame.

Another shame, and it has me scratching my head, is how does Bruce Wayne get back to Gotham after his escape (is it really a spoiler that he gets out?) , and indeed how does he manage to get over his back injury so quickly? I'm no osteopath but  "You have a vertebra sticking out of your back, let me punch it back in and then you can hang around" seems a bit simplistic to me. Fairly recent Bond films (Die Another Day in particular) and even more the first Bourne film show that it's not easy to get back to . Some reference to his journey apart from an arty cut from coming into the daylight to encountering Selina in Gotham, please? Sure, Wayne showed his resourcefulness in the first movie but that was a lifetime and a repaired broken back ago...

To end, I have a couple of pure nitpicks which don't really lessen my enjoyment of the film - but I did notice them and I'm sure many others are out there too.

How does Batman in all his finery, plus half a dozen police officers, not to mention his little trick with lighting a trail of (?)petrol(?), manage to stay put on the half-frozen river when we've seen a single man on his own come a cropper?

And another from the climactic end. This a significant spoiler for anyone who's not seen the film, so highlight to read.  Before Batman even attaches the bomb to the Bat there's roughly 1'30 left on the clock until it goes BOOM. The bomb has a blast radius of six miles - though as anyone will tell you, the damage caused by a nitro bomb isn't just the blast, it's the fallout, so he really needs to get it at least 12 miles off the shore. Twelve miles in ninety seconds while carrying a payload in the region of a couple of tons is some serious va-va-voom! Who designs a machine for crowd control (Fox's words) that does 500-ish mph while carrying more than its own weight?

When all's said and done, The Dark Knight Rises is a fine film and an honourable way for Nolan to say goodbye to these characters (unless he were to choose to pick up any of the potential spinoffs the ending sets up. It's just a pity that a little more attention wasn't paid to some significant narrative inconsistencies which ultimately mean this film ends up the weakest of the trilogy.