The Dark Knight Rises(7/20/2012)

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In 1987, Michael Jackson released the album “Bad,” and it promptly managed to sell well over thirty million copies, remain at number one on the charts for weeks to come, and managed to generate five number one singles (which set a record that would remain for over twenty years).  By almost every measure the album was a success but it was seen as a failure if only because it was merely an album rather than the world conquering phenomenon that its predecessor, Thriller, had been.  In making a third film in his incredibly well received trilogy of Batman films, Christopher Nolan has a similar no-win situation in his sights.  The second film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight, was very likely the best comic book film ever made and unless its follow-up somehow managed to top that film’s perfect storm of awesomeness, it would likely be seen as a letdown.  Now that the film is finally here I can say right up front that The Dark Knight Rises is indeed “just a movie” when compared to its predecessor, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t do a hell of a lot of good stuff along the way.

Set eight years after Batman took the blame for Harvey Dent’s death so that the disgraced D.A.’s legacy could be saved, this sequel explores a world in which much of Gotham’s street crime has been quashed but corruption still lives in the city’s board rooms and mansions.  Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) hasn’t worn the batman costume again and has personally become a recluse after his plans to make a renewable energy source fell flat.  Wayne does find himself leaving his seclusion after his mother’s jewelry is stolen by a skilled thief named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), who is secretly carrying out the bidding of a terrorist named Bane (Tom Hardy).  Bane is working with a usurper to Wayne Enterprises named John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) in order to get Wayne’s fingerprints as part of an elaborate scheme to steal Wayne’s money.  What Daggett doesn’t realize is that Bane is not really interested in becoming rich, and this is really just the first step in a large scale plan to bring wide scale ruin to both Bruce Wayne and Gotham City.

If that plot description doesn’t sound wildly compelling I don’t blame you.  That summery mostly covers the first forty-five minutes of the film and that first act has… issues.  Specifically it has to get some rather convoluted exposition out of the way in order to get to the meat of the story in which Bane sets his plan into motion and holds Gotham city hostage as part of a large scale revolution against the city’s “decadence.”  Once that section of the film gets going the movie only gets better and better leading into a very satisfying convulsion, but until then audiences are going to get a little anxious as a number of new characters are introduced, good but not great action sequences take place, and various confusing business machinations take place.  That’s not to say all of this material is terrible or even bad, it just maybe isn’t becoming of an event movie of this caliber.  Fortunately the material in the film’s second half is so compelling that you almost forget about all of this by the time the movie’s over.

The part of what made The Joker such an enticing villain in The Dark Knight was that he was an anarchist who committed crimes simply because he “wants to see the world burn.”  The Dark Knight Rises’ villain, Bane, is pretty much the polar opposite of this.  Bane very much has a cause: as an apostate of the League of Shadows he believes that Western civilization had become decadent and needed to be torn down and taken over by “the people.”  He sort of has a point, Gotham had reached a point where it was making its richest residents safe by imposing draconian laws on the criminal underclass and the Daggetts of the city were running amok, but his tactics involve so much collateral damage that this gets lost quickly and any sympathy the audience has with him dissipates almost immediately.  In Beatles terms: he says he wants a revolution, but really he’s talking about destruction, and it most certainly isn’t going to be alright.  Coincidentally I was watching the 1935 adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities shortly after seeing The Dark Knight rises and I was struck by how that story’s depiction of the French Revolution mirrored a lot of what happens over the course of Bane’s siege on Gotham.  Both conflicts have a key prison break as a turning point, both conflicts failed to differentiate between those who were truly corrupt and those who are simply working within the system in order to keep the peace, and both conflict utilize kangaroo courts hell bent on executing anyone involved in the former regime regardless of their own individual virtues.

Even if one has no sympathy for or interest in Bane’s motives for taking over Gotham, the whole storyline makes for some very interesting imagery.  There’s something very strange and apocalyptic about seeing a modern American city under occupation by a paramilitary group of criminals.  Seeing empty streets patrolled by Bane’s army, meetings between police officers who are forming an underground resistance, and a president on TV essentially telling Gotham’s citizens that they’re on their own.  One could imagine this as a scenario in an action movie independent both of this series and of the superhero genre altogether.  In fact that’s largely what this is, because Batman (that is to say the costumed hero, not necessarily Bruce Wayne) is sidelined for much of the film.  Instead this section works as a showcase for people like Commissioner Gordon, Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley, and a street cop named John Blake played by Joseph Gordon Levitt idolizes Batman and discovers his own inner hero over the course of the film.  In many ways this story is just as much if not more about Gotham City and the common people within it rising to the occasion, albeit with a little inspiration by Batman.  That’s appropriate because the film’s central theme is (contrary to those who believe the series has embraced some sort of nihilism) hope.  Hope is something that Bane uses almost as a weapon of torture that makes an inevitable defeat that much harder, but it ends up being his undoing; it’s what Batman proves to be the ultimate symbol of for the people of Gotham.

Christopher Nolan maintains his confidence behind the camera here, Hans Zimmer’s score is as epic as ever, and you can expect all the fine acting and production values here that we previously saw in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.  That said, there’s no action scene here that’s as transcendent as the epic car chase midway through The Dark Knight.  Bane is also not going to be remembered nearly as well as The Joker, though he’s a more than adequate villain when compared to the Lokis, Whiplashes, and Red Skulls who serve as the antagonist of most comic book movies.  The film also lacks The Dark Knight’s mostly smooth pacing and streamlined storytelling, but I forgive the movie for its jagged and occasionally messy script because unlike Batman Begins and the Dark Knight, this isn’t really trying to tell a stand-alone story.  The goal here is to bring a trilogy to  a close and if that means spending a third of your movie bringing us back up to speed with the world of the series before your real story begins, so be it.  The tradeoff for the mess is that the film manages to give us something that the on-going comic book series that chronicles Batman’s life was never able to give us: closure.  The film ends this saga on an almost perfect note which completes Batman’s arc, give him some measure of peace, and also shows us that Gotham is all the better for having had him protect it.

***1/2 out of Four

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DVD Catch-Up: Miss Bala(7/26/2012)

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There’s a war going on.  I’m not talking about a war in the Middle East or in Africa or even some kind of metaphorical domestic culture war; I’m talking about the nearly literal war that’s going on in Northern Mexico between the army and the drug cartels.  You’d think that we’d be more concerned about mass chaos going on in a country that immediately borders us but for whatever reason no one seems to care that much… so long as those Mexicans don’t try to cross said border, then they freak.  Even if the mainstream media isn’t interested in the conflict, at the very least you’d think that filmmakers would see the drama in all this. But alas, the only movie on the subject right now is the noisy-looking Oliver Stone film Savages, which likely isn’t all that nuanced.  Fortunately, Mexico itself has a pretty decent film industry and can make home grown films on the subject like Miss Bala, which was their submission for the Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s Academy Awards.  It didn’t make it to that stable of nominees but it did garner enough buzz to get a stateside theatrical run early this year.

The film’s title is a play on words, the film is about a woman who aspires to win the “Miss Baja California” beauty pageant, and the word “bala” means “bullet” in Spanish.  This isn’t really about a beauty contest though because, though sheer chance, this aspiring contestant named Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) finds herself caught in the middle of the drug war.  These cartel leaders hope to use Sigman’s position within the beauty pageant for purposes of smuggling and rig the contest so that she’ll continue her rise through the world of Mexican pageantry.  The police, who are unsympathetic and see her as nothing more than willing collaborator with the cartel. As such, Sigman becomes a sort of symbol for Mexico’s civilian population, caught in the middle of a senseless war that she never wanted and is continually asked to take sides in.

Miss Bala is interesting in its ability to make the scenes of violence tense and exciting while never glamorizing or exploiting the behavior on screen.  This might be because our protagonist is never the perpetrator of, nor necessarily an active victim of, the film’s gun violence.  In a particularly impressive scene she finds herself stuck inside a car that is being shot up by an unseen shooter and when she escapes the car she finds herself in the middle of a gang war that more closely resembles a World War I trench than the finale of Scarface.  I also liked that the film used allegory and imagry in order to get its message across; it’s an excellent example of how a movie can show rather than tell its message while still being an interesting story.

In spite of all the film’s merits, I can see why it was merely an Oscar submission rather than an Oscar nominee.  Specifically I found that Laura Guerrero perhaps functioned better as a symbol than as a character.  She isn’t very active in her own story and spends almost the entire movie reacting to her various predicaments.  We also don’t learn a whole lot about her aside from the fact that she isn’t very wealthy and would sort of like to be a beauty queen.  Also, while the movie is made pretty well, the filmmaking does not necessarily blow the viewer away.  Nothing here suggests that Gerardo Naranjo is going to reach the heights of some of his countrymen like Alfonso Cuarón or Alejandro González Iñárritu.  Still, this is a pretty good crime movie all told, one worthy of the blip it made on the world cinema radar.

*** out of Four