For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises


The Dark Knight Rises has ambitions to rise, to soar, to climb above and meet the lofty expectations that are unfairly shackled to it.  Ultimately, though, it barely gets off the ground, permanently restrained by the cement shoes of pretension, clumsy storytelling, excessive length, and lack of focus, all the trademarks of its creator, Christopher Nolan, the Internet appointed Awesomest Director Ever!  Read the blogs, people: This guy makes nothing short of a masterpiece every time he turns on a camera. 
Oh, brother.  As someone that found Batman Begins plodding and underwhelming and The Dark Knight overstuffed and overrated, this final chapter in Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy doesn’t strike me as the potential crowning jewel in the franchise that has everyone else and their mothers drooling feverishly with fanboy rabidity.  Instead, I inquisitively approach Nolan’s work as a curious skeptic, on guard to one-day endorse him the title of Master he so desperately craves.  When he’s worthy of it, I swear I’ll declare it, but until that day, Nolan remains, to these eyes, a high-minded action-movie director with too much zeal and not enough grace. 
For starters, Nolan could have at least made this Batman movie actually, you know, about Batman—something its predecessor, The Dark Knight, failed to do.   But such obvious dramatic foundation seems to slip the director’s mind.  The Dark Knight Rises is about juicier stuff than superheroes.  When your movie tackles terrorism and economic dichotomies and moral conundrums and numerous other topical and brainy subjects, what use are Bat-caves and Bat-mobiles?  At a ruthless 2 hours and 45 minutes, the movie finds time for a dozen zeitgeist allusions—from the financial crisis to Occupy Wall Street to the threat of new technologies.  It fills its quota of flipping cars and exploding bridges.  It manages to logjam in a whole slew of new extraneous characters.  There’s plenty of room for plot turns and double crosses.  All the while, The Dark Knight Rises fails to properly introduce, develop and resolve its protagonist, the guy with the pointy ears—the one in the goddamn title. 
Perhaps I’m being unfair.  Maybe the movie does wrap up the tale of The Caped Crusader is the most facile sense, but I was too distracted by Nolan’s Film-Noir-On-Speed stylistic disorder and his debilitating need to overload his script with people, places, and flying things to fully absorb—or care for—any pregnant insights on Bruce Wayne and his dark alter ego.  If they did exist, they were, like so many of Nolan’s thematic “messages”, buried under three feet of murky cinematic soot. 
To avoid ranting, let’s talk plot.  It’s been eight years since The Joker held Gotham City in a vice grip of fear, and turned its golden boy, DA Harvey Dent, to the dark side.  Remember, Batman took the rap for Dent’s deranged killing spree and has gone underground to avoid the resulting lynch mob.  His daytime other-half, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), is now a gimpy Howard Hughes with a beard and Kleenex boxes on his feet (so to speak).  He no longer makes public appearances.  The Dent Act—ratified after the eponymous man’s demise—has cleaned up the streets, but left Gotham with a massive wage discrepancy.  The middle class is shrinking. 
In marches a new villain, Bane.  He takes to the sewers with his army of Chechen Rebels, expatiating on revolution to incite the masses against the wealthy, beginning with a strategic stock market crash.  A bald bodybuilder with a black voice-box/muzzle that makes him sound like Darth Vader mixed with an old English elocutionist, Bane is played by Tom Hardy, who gives an impressive physical performance, but considering the disability of having to act behind that awkward shroud, he comes off as little more than a meathead with a funny voice.  (They probably could’ve cast Kane Hodder, the guy in the hockey mask from the Friday The 13th movies, and few would know the difference.)

For mostly incomprehensible reasons, at least until the finale’s (whoa!) giant twist, Bane takes control of Gotham, sets up a people’s court presided over by the increasingly zany Scarecrow, and keeps the outside world at bay with a massive nuclear reactor/bomb.  With the city in dire peril yet again, Batman dusts off his suit and prepares to go head-to-head with Gotham’s latest nihilistic overlord.

I wish the story were that simple, I really do.  But Nolan lives by this maxim: If it’s horribly convoluted, people will mistake it for cooly complex.  Back are Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), penitent over allowing Batman to take Dent’s heat; superhero apparel handyman Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman); and trusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine), whose only role in this smorgasbord is to cry every time he’s on screen. (Nolan has apparently taken note that critics find his films emotionally vacuous, so as to indolently solve that dilemma, he lets his English thespian turn on the waterworks malapropos.)  There’s newcomer John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levit), an idealistic rookie cop that does his own private sleuthing, and leads around a ragtag troop of orphans like their scoutmaster; and billionaire philanthropist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), Wayne’s newest business partner and love interest.

All these characters figure prominently into the monstrous narrative juggernaut that is the plot of The Dark Knight Rises, and throughout this loud and capricious grind you’ll feel as if you’re watching three or four films at once, all crudely parallel edited into a single bloated and busy picture without a semblance of intelligence or heart.  But it’s about big, current, real-world issues, you say?  When asked which way his film leaned on the political spectrum, Nolan replied with something along the lines of, “I don’t know.  We just throw in as many things as we can to see what sticks.”  In other words, his film has no voice or point of view; it just name-drops hot button topics to fraudulently generate relevance and respectability.

Bain’s clearly the story’s resident “terrorist”, but his vendetta to avenge his old master—Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson from Batman Begins)—hews closer to the motives of Die Hard 3’s German bank robbers than any actual terrorist.

But Nolan, employing his agonizingly urgent verbosity, makes the insinuation like a broken record.  Purported sophistication isn’t the same as actual sophistication.  I’m reading too much into this, is that it?  I’d happily proclaim the movie a mindless summer blockbuster with some badass action scenes and special effects, if it weren’t so heavily marinated in portent, pretension and big concepts.  If it wants to be considered art, I’ll treat it as such.  In that light, it’s worthless.  As spectacle, sure Nolan knows how to blow up a football field or demolish massive steal suspension bridges with the help of his friends over in the Computer Generated Images department.  If only he knew how to tell a clean, coherent story and express fully formed ideas.

I will concede that the one beacon of light in this overwhelming darkness has got to be Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle.  A duplicitous cat burglar torn asunder by her allegiance to the 99% and her obvious attraction to one mysterious billionaire, Kyle is even more slippery than Batman, leaving him searching on rooftops as she evaporates stealthily into the night.  “So, that’s what that feels like,” he growls.  She travels around with a cute little blonde teenager (maybe her ward, maybe her lover?), and walks the ever-so-plausible tightrope between good and evil, between solipsism and communal welfare.  In a less discursive film, Kyle could’ve really shined, but Hathaway leaves her mark nonetheless, in a performance as witty and beguiling as it is liberated and brilliantly unknowable.

That’s where the compliments end.  The Dark Knight Rises, when it’s all said and done, really is a suitable capper to Christopher Nolan’s over-exalted trilogy.  It manages to be as ponderous as Batman Begins and as overblown as The Dark Knight, while still being as empty as both, combined.  So this is what “serious” superhero movies look like, huh?  Hopefully now that Nolan’s take on the genre has at long last reached its conclusion, they can finally go back to being fun.

Monday, August 6, 2012



Oliver Stone was once a political provocateur, an accusatory and wildly ambitious finger-pointer who attacked the American political, cultural, and societal landscape with fearless bravado.  Some of his better pictures—Platoon and Born On The Fourth Of July—were gripping exposés charged by the fury and passion of post-Vietnam disillusionment and post-Watergate governmental malcontent.  While even his follies—JFK and Natural Born Killers—reached for the stratosphere before collapsing under the weight of their own pretentions and self-righteousness.  In either case, Stone was—with Spike Lee—the most formidable American cinematic loudmouth of the late 80’s and 90’s, someone with a point of view and something to say—an Important director. 
These days, his soapbox cinema has lost much of its relevance.  His recent films W. (the George W. Bush biopic) and World Trade Center were, respectively, an inert stab at controversy and a run-of-the-mill disaster flick that happened to be about a world-altering calamity—it was Backdraft: The 9/11 Version.  With Savages, it is now clear that Stone’s famous flag burning has all but been extinguished, at least for now.  Even considering its references to the war in Afghanistan, the war on drugs, corrupt cops, and Internet streaming, this movie’s about as politically driven as something directed by Robert Rodriguez.  Yet from Stone, who’s usually such a restless muckraker, Savages arrives as something of a bloody treat, never void of mindless entertainment value.  There are disposable joys to be had in this ultimately muddled but always alluring saga of cross-boarder drug violence.

In its auspicious first minutes, the movie introduces us to its central figures: a high-functioning love triangle made up of narrator Ophelia (Black Lively), philanthropist Ben (Aaron Johnson), and war veteran Chon (Tayor Kitsch).  A partnership of Laguna Beach marijuana cultivators and distributors, who guarantee the most potent stuff in the world, Ben and Chon share Ophelia—or “O”—like Butch and Sundance shared Katharine Ross, except that this movie is from the girl’s perspective.  She describes Chon as the love of her life and then Ben, mere moments later, as the other love of her life.  In her eyes, Ben’s the sensitive lover who uses his drug money to finance clean water programs in Africa.  And Chon’s the tormented man’s man with a perpetual beef, a stressed out soldier that has not orgasms but “wargasms”.   According to O, combined they’re the perfect man.  The film’s libertine polygamous trio could anchor a great film all on their own, but Stone has a whole annoyingly busy plot to churn through, and the thematic promise they arouse is quickly tossed before a hail of bullets.

The boys are strong-armed into selling their business to a Tijuana cartel run by Salma Hayek’s sexy Latina jefe, Elena Sanchez.  Stone deliberately reveals a forlorn mommy-dearest burrowed underneath Elena’s dictatorial crime boss persona, granting his wicked witch some dimensionality, to good effect.  The only person that gets the better of her is the reticent Magda (Sandra Echeverria), her ashamed offspring hiding out in California.  To coerce Ben and Chon, Elena calls on her sleaziest underling, Lado, played by a scene-stealing Benicio Del Toro as the most disturbingly charismatic and darkly funny criminal enforcer you’re likely to encounter onscreen.  He’s a proudly repugnant psychopath in a Cheech Marin stash who loves to small talk his hits before pulling the trigger.  He gags his torture victims because he “doesn’t like the screaming.”  In a sick way, he’s as personable as he is depraved.  Then there’s John Travolta’s crooked DEA agent Dennis, a nervous snake-in-the-grass who knows that the drug war is a game that can be won by playing for every team.  He’s got a wife in hospice he can’t stop nattering about—another instance of humanity graced upon the monstrous. 

Quickly, the bad guy’s in Savages become far more interesting than the heroes who, as individuals, grow tiredly one-note.  Kitsch’s Chon is a glowering tough guy with nary a beat change.  Johnson’s Ben comes to life only momentarily when forced to participate for the first time in his profession’s inherent violence.  He shows some genuine squeamishness, but little personality beyond that.  And once the merger sours and O is captured by the cartel and held as leverage, the film becomes too chockablock to even begin fleshing out its protagonists.  Although Lively turns in a better performance as a captive stealthily struggling to win her captors’ favor, the three are best when they’re together, which is seldom.  Despite this, the picture remains highly watchable as a stylish and blood-soaked exploitation crime thriller and action movie that blends Blow, Alpha Dog, and Once Upon A Time In Mexico into a cool and sexy new gangster opus that can sit among them as posters on a freshman’s dorm room wall.  Stone may have gone from moving the masses to pleasing bloodthirsty college kids, but he’s definitely got a knack for it.  I never thought an Oliver Stone movie could be so much fun for having so little on its mind.