The Dark Knight Rises

Critics gushed over The Dark Knight, I think not entirely justifiably. While Heath Ledger’s performance was a revelation, the script was a little weak, full of gimmicks and with a disappointing climax. On reflection, I think it fundamentally suffers because its theme – the one imparted by its antagonist, the Joker – is one of nihilism. While nihilism can be used effectively as a contrast to the protagonist, The Dark Knight left me feeling a bit like the Joker had won. Contrast this with Batman Begins, which is all about the protagonist finding the meaning in his life, and which has an entirely satisfying conclusion.

The Dark Knight Rises concludes the trilogy, but its opening sequences seem to push The Dark Knight even more to the side: Rather than Batman (Christian Bale) continuing to work against crime from outside the system, he’s retired, and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse. Harvey Dent’s death and Batman’s sacrifice (taking the rap for Dent’s death) lead to a golden age in Gotham City, as the Dent Act puts criminals away for years, at only the cost of Commissioner Gordon’s soul (Gary Oldman), maintaining the lie. Truly, it seems the Joker beat Batman (because why would the Joker care of a bunch of criminals get put away?).

Eight years after the events of the previous film, cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) breaks into the private wing of Wayne Manor, setting in motion events which turn Gotham upside-down. The mysterious criminal Bane (Tom Hardy) has his sights set on the city, bringing Batman out of retirement for a showdown.

While also a long film, I felt that Rises moves right along with few slow periods (few times that I was willing to go to the bathroom, for instance). It’s got secrets (who is Bane? Why is he gunning for Gotham?), humor (especially in Batman getting back in the saddle), some tense fights, and characters set low and then fighting to their catharsis. It’s properly a sequel to the first film, with the second just being set-up, and the story is, ultimately, better than either of its predecessors. It ought to hold up on re-watching, too.

More after the cut, but here there being spoilers:

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The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight is the sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins, which I enjoyed quite a bit. Remember when Batman came out in 1989 and everyone was wondering whether it would be a campy film like the 60s TV series which had influenced 1978’s Superman to its detriment? Fans lauded Tim Burton’s take on the caped crusader for being dark and serious.

Well, Burton ain’t got nuthin’ on Christopher Nolan, director of the current franchise.

Here, Batman (Christian Bale) and squeaky-clean district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) are on the verge of shutting down Gotham’s crime families, especially after Batman manages to haul in the crime lords’ “accountant” from Hong Kong. The crime lords get into bed with the maniacal Joker (Heath Ledger) to take out Batman, and the Joker sets out to do in all the big names who are maintaining law and order in Gotham, showing himself capable of intricate, seemingly-impossible crimes of murder and mass destruction.

Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, has high hopes that Dent can be the hero Gotham need and that he can put aside his double identity and marry his childhood sweetheart, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). But, unable to wait for Bruce forever, Rachel is not only working with Harvey in his office, but dating his publicly. Which, of course, also puts her in the line of fire of the mob and the Joker.

The Dark Knight is a very dark film indeed, even though much of it takes place in the daytime: Harvey, Rachel, Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman), the commissioner, the mayor, all the good guys are constantly under siege by people who vanish in the shadows after striking. The Gotham police department is deeply corrupt, which bothers Dent to no end even though he knows that dirty cops are better than the only alternative, which is no cops at all. It makes the film feel constantly suspenseful, even in the daylight scenes, even in places we expect will be safe for the heroes. Only his secret identity gives Batman himself any safety. (Although one does wonder why Bruce Wayne isn’t a high-profile target for the criminals of Gotham.)

Ledger is quite good as the Joker. Jack Nicholson’s performance in the 1989 film also drew kudos, but I always thought he was just playing ‘nutty old Jack Nicholson’, and I thought his performance was a low point of that film. Ledger is dark and menacing and convincing in being “crazy like a fox”, the sort of crazy where he’s willing to do anything to get what he wants, and where his appearance makes others underestimate him, often for the last time. Is his performance worthy of an Oscar, as has been suggested? I didn’t think so, but he did do a good job.

The film is a fine suspense and action-adventure piece. What makes it really work is that there’s some real characterization behind the cape: Bruce isn’t as meaty a character here as he was in Batman Begins, but Harvey, Rachel and Lt. Gordon all pick up the slack and contribute to giving the film more heft than just a lot of chasing and fighting and lunacy, it gives the characters something to fight for.

Despite that, the film does have its flaws. First, it’s overlong, with perhaps one too many clever plans of the Joker’s that Batman has to stop, and one too many nifty gimmicks that Batman can employ – his little trick with Lucius Fox’s (Morgan Freeman) latest technological innovation was cool, but implausible and unnecessary. Second, while the resolution of the Bruce-Harvey-Rachel triangle works for the film (though it’s not a happy ending), the Batman-Harvey-Joker triangle ends rather anticlimactically, separating the Joker and Harvey into two separate threads when it would have been far more satisfying to have them all merge together in the final fight against the Joker. While the Joker’s character is rife with meaning, I thought Nolan missed a chance to imbue Harvey Dent’s fate with the same degree of meaning – or at least a demonstration that even the Joker should sometimes be careful what he wishes for.

Still, The Dark Knight is quite a good film, stylish and intense. Definitely not a kids’ film, as there are some pretty brutal scenes. But maybe the most serious superhero film ever made. Which shows how far we’ve come in 40 years.

A few more, spoiler-laden comments after the cut:

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The Prestige

After thoroughly enjoying The Illusionist, I was interested to see The Prestige, which also features turn-of-the-century magicians. I expected it to be a less-stylish film, with flashier special effects and more of a thriller than a character drama. While I was right, that understates the film’s quality considerably: It’s quite a good film.

The film opens in 1899 with Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) witnessing the death-by-drowning of his rival magician, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) during a perfoormance gone awry, followed by Borden being jailed for Angier’s murder, likely to be executed. In prison, Borden reads Angier’s diary from the last ten years, in which Angier in turn writes about decoding one of Borden’s journals.

The film centers around the rivalry between the two men. When they were young and both employed by the same magician, Angier’s wife (Piper Perabo) drowned during an act, for which Angier blamed Borden for tying her with the wrong knot. Borden sets himself up as a solo act after meeting his wife, Sarah (Rebecca Hall), but loses most of two fingers when Angier sabotages his bullet-catching act. Angier starts his own career working with their mentor, Cutter (Michael Caine), and his assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), but his own early career is sabotaged by Borden.

Borden’s career takes off when he unveils a fantastic crowd-pleaser called The Transported Man, in which he enters one cabinet on stage and emerges from another one across the stage just a second later. Angier is desperate to copy this trick. Cutter is certain that Borden is using a double, but Angier is sure it’s the same man. Olivia agrees with Angier, since she’s seen that Angier is missing two fingers at both ends of the trick.

Angier sends Olivia to Borden to spy on him, and she produces Borden’s coded journal. Decoding it, the journal sends Angier to America to seek out Nikolas Tesla (David Bowie) who he is convinced will yield the secret of Borden’s trick. This sets in motion the events that lead to the story’s tragic ending, which is layered with several surprises.

The Prestige was co-written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest. Nolan was also the man behind Memento – another very cool film – as well as Batman Begins, and he continues to entertain with his latest clever and engaging film.

The story of personal hatred and professional jealousy is very well done, and is mixed with Borden’s up-and-down relationship with Sarah, and his love for their daughter Jess (Samantha Mahurin). Although the film has the unavoidable sense of foreboding (given that it opens with Angier’s drowning), the feeling of watching these two men at the edge of a new scientific age, both of whom are dedicated to their professions, keeps alive the feeling that if only they’d give up their rivalry they’d both be the better for it.

The acting is first-rate. Bale and Jackman are both quite good, but they’re overshadowed by Caine’s fine performance as the man watching the drama from the wings, and especially by Bowie’s intense performance of obsession and self-control as Tesla. Johanssen is, well, not bad, but not great either; Hall’s role as Sarah has more meat to it, so she comes out with the stronger performance.

The underlying theme of the film is about tricks and secrets. One of the refrains in the dialogue is “Are you watching closely?” The film opens with this line, throwing down the gauntlet that there’s something funny going on here and challenging us to figure out what it is. The meat and potatoes of a magic act is a trick, fooling the audience into thinking they’re seeing something other than they are. But no trick is as successful as one backed by a deep secret, something the audience can’t suspect is working in the act. Both Borden and Angier are playing games with more than one level of secrets. Everything is revealed by the end, and although I figured some of it out ahead of time, some of it still managed to surprise me.

Although it has strong character elements, The Prestige is not the character drama that The Illusionist is, and I didn’t think it was quite as good a film. But it’s still very good, and if you enjoyed Nolan’s earlier films, you’ll like this one too.

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The rest of this review contains spoilers, so stop reading here if you don’t want the film’s secrets spoiled for you.

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