This week in film is predictably and understandably defined by one guy in a rubber suit. Yep, I’m talkin' 'bout Batman. After weeks of feverish anticipation, the epic conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s dark and brooding superhero trilogy is finally here. It’s a movie set to break records and even though The Avengers had the 3D ticket-hike boost on its side, there’s a damn good chance that it could end up playing second fiddle to Bats at the box office this year.
This is a film everyone can and should see this weekend. However, if you’re not too keen on costumed crime-fighting shenanigans, don’t worry; there is another option. New York’s favorite neurotic Woody Allen also has a new movie that we missed last week. So you can watch Batman beat up bad guys or Woody explore award love in Italy. If neither option appeals to you, there’s always Ice Age 4 as well as the possibility that you don’t enjoy movies and as a result, I probably don’t like you. Sorry, I’m a bit of a dink like that.
The Batman: The Dark Knight Rises
Arriving on screens to more anticipation than the goddamn Olympics, The Dark Knight Rises was always destined to be the big movie of the 2012 summer and thankfully it delivers on that promise (sorry Avengers, you may make more money, but you just got topped as a movie). After borrowing from famous Batman comics like Year One, The Killing Joke, and The Long Halloween in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, for the third chapter Nolan made the universe entirely his own.
While still rooted in famous characters, The Dark Knight Rises feels like the Batman story only Christopher Nolan could tell. That’s both a good and a bad thing. This film takes all of the brooding performances, physical action, nihilism, grand speeches, and at times misplaced social commentary that defined Nolan’s take on the Batman and dials them all up to 11. The result is a genuine blockbuster epic and a fitting capper to the series that also stays true to the flaws that dogged his movies from the beginning.
The film opens eight years after the events The Dark Knight, with Batman considered a villain by the public and Bruce Wayne retired from crime fighting and left hobbled with a cane. He’s soon roused out of his slumber when a sexy young cat burglar (Anne Hathaway, never named Catwoman onscreen) steals his mother’s jewels and warns of a storm coming to Gotham City that will punish the city’s wealthiest citizens for leeching off of the poor. That storm is embodied by Tom Hardy’s Bane, a physical force who builds a literal underground army in the sewers to rise up and take the city under siege in an act of class warfare.
Batman must return along with the help of his three father figures (Michael Caine’s Alfred, Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox, and Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon) and a new young honest cop played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt who figures out the Dark Knight’s secret identity. Batman’s first fight with Bane doesn’t go well and the battles just get bigger from there.
Nolan is in command of the project from the first frame. Shooting over half of the film in IMAX, the action scenes are both viscerally realistic by comic book movie standards and larger than life in a way the series hasn’t felt before. Backed by a relentless bass-heavy sound design and one of Hans Zimmer's typically overwhelming scores, the film is a masterful technical accomplishment that delivers the finest spectacle of the summer. As a screenwriter Nolan is just as ambitious, but a little less sure-footed.
With so many characters in his ensemble and so many threads in his narrative tapestry, the movie drags a little bit in the first act as the pieces fall into place. Thankfully, once things get going, the film takes off. Some editorial nips and tucks in the first act could have smoothed things over and kept the running time mercifully under two and a half hours, but the amount of freedom offered to Nolan on this project guarantees excess and you’ve just got to go with it.
Thematically, Nolan wraps up the series in a satisfying way, fulfilling the themes of “Batman as symbol” and “Batman as Bruce Wayne’s actual personality” established in the first film as well as adding Batman into the images of contemporary social strife like Nolan did in the sequel. Sometimes the characters express themes through droning speeches better explored in images elsewhere, but that’s par for the course with this director.
Likewise, while Bane’s attack on Gotham conjures images of urban terrorism and the Occupy movement, don’t expect the film to offer any commentary or insight on those genuine issues. This is a superhero movie after all, not a place for social commentary. Nolan just borrows those images as part of his desire to ground Batman into contemporary reality and that trick works well again here. It may be a bit rough around the edges, but The Dark Knight Rises confirms Nolan as a master of his craft and one of the few filmmakers around who can filter blockbusters through his distinct sensibility.
He’s also pretty damn good at casting and that’s true this time as well. After taking a back seat to The Joker and Two-Face in The Dark Knight, Christian Bale once again becomes the focus of the movie. His growl can be distracting as Batman, but it’s kept more in check this time and he gets far more screen time to play the damaged soul of Bruce Wayne, which was always his strength. Anne Hathaway brings levity to this relentlessly dark cinematic endeavor as Catwoman, playing a con artist who beats her foes with words as much as her spiked-heeled toes and is caught in an internal battle over her own morality. She clearly has fun making the role her own, although this more subdued take never tops Michelle Pfeiffer’s scene stealing in Batman Returns even if it’s more appropriate to the Nolan-verse.
Tom Hardy has the unenviable task of replacing Heath Ledger’s Joker as the main villain, yet the brilliant actor is up to the task, creating a vicious physical force and twisted evil mind capable of destroying Batman and doing it with his face covered in a mask. He’s not as compelling or interesting a villain as The Joker, but then few big screen baddies are. Franchise vets Oldman, Freeman, and Caine provide their usual good work, with Caine stepping up to become the emotional core of the movie. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cottilard are also strong additions to the cast, though explaining why would require spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at that.
Most movie trilogies choke on their final chapter (The Godfather Part III, anyone?), but Nolan has pulled off a satisfying ending to his series. The film doesn’t come close to topping The Dark Knight and that would have been an impossible task without Heath Ledger/The Joker (the character isn’t even mentioned in the film, which is odd and distracting). However, it is better than the somewhat muddled Batman Begins and concludes the series in such a satisfying way that it will probably be considered a single, satisfying, three-part story in a few years. It’s not a perfect movie, but that can’t be said about The Dark Knight either.
The film does at least confirm that Nolan had a distinct vision for the caped crusader that he was able to follow through to completion. In theory the series could maybe continue, but it absolutely shouldn’t. This is the end and thankfully there’s no need for tears, Bat-fans. The franchise is way too lucrative for Warner Brothers to abandon it. There will be a Batman reboot in a few short years to look forward to, even if the filmmaker put in charge is going to have one hell of a difficult time topping or matching what Chris Nolan and company seemed to pull off so effortlessly in three satisfying Bat-films. Good luck, future Batman director, whoever you are.
The Bad: Ice Age: Continental Drift
I’ll keep it brief. The Ice Age movies are the absolute worst example of kiddie CGI flicks with celebrity voices. Now entering its fourth chapter, the limited franchise has absolutely nowhere left to go. You get to hear the same famous voices again and look at the same cute characters, but any sense of fun or novelty has long since disappeared. On DVD it might be a decent babysitter for children too young to be able to determine which Ice Age movie they are watching.
For everyone else, this thing is just one giant waste of time not even worthy of discussion. There is a nice little 3D Simpsons short before the feature though. Too bad they didn’t turn that into a movie instead. Let’s just hope this franchise doesn’t come back again for round five. At this point, it’s time for the series to move into direct-to-DVD releases. The writing quality is already at that level, so the studio may as well make that true of the production values as well.
The Woody: To Rome with Love
Hey everybody, Woody Allen is back! Okay, I guess that isn’t much of a surprise. The Woodster has made at least one movie per year since the '70s and that ain’t going to change any time soon. However, thanks to Midnight in Paris providing viewers with the finest Woody Allen adventure in years, his new flick faces lofty expectations for the first time in quite a while. Unfortunately new Woody fans are about to feel the sense of mild disappointment that anyone who has followed the director for years knows all too well.
When you make one movie a year, they won’t all be classics and a great deal of what this filmmaker puts out are merely mediocre larks. To Rome with Love is clearly a collection of half-finished ideas Allen has been sitting on for a while, strung together in an Italian setting simply because he had an opportunity to shoot a movie there last summer. Some laughs and nice performances emerge, but ultimately this is one of those Woody Allen movies that will disappear into obscurity almost instantly.
This is an ensemble Woody Allen picture that intertwines a variety of plots, so let's take a second to acknowledge them all, shall we? The best one stars Roberto Benigni as an average Italian man who suddenly becomes a celebrity for no reason and has to deal with being hounded by paparazzi and pursued by beautiful women. Woody Allen stars in the next plot as a failed opera director who flies to Rome with his wife (the long-missed Judy Davis) to meet their daughter’s (Alison Pill) new fiancé (Flavio Parenti). Woody quickly discovers his son-in-law’s father (Fabio Armiliato) is a talented singer, but only in the shower, requiring some creative staging to show off his talents.
Hang on! We ain’t done with stories yet. Next, there’s the tale of two newlyweds (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) who arrive in Rome for their honeymoon and end up comically separated, spending the vacation pursuing accidental new relationships with a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) and a movie star (Antonio Albanese). Finally, there’s a story starring Jesse Eisenberg as a “young Woody in love” who is forced to choose between a safe long term girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) and her fascinatingly flaky actress friend (Ellen Page). He gets advice on the matter from Alec Baldwin who plays either an older version of the character looking back or a once spurned aging lover offering advice (that’s never clear). Either way he walks in and out of Eisenberg’s story in an inexplicably magic manner for what is essentially a remake of Woody’s 2003 comedy Anything Else.
That’s a lot of stories for 112 minutes and it feels like it. None of the stories are interesting enough to play on their own and are essentially little larks for Woody. Combining them together is more confusing than anything else given that they all have different timelines, so that one story takes place over a couple of months and another intercut with it happens over a few days. That about sums up how lazy Woody’s approach was on this movie as a whole. He’s clearly just having fun shooting a movie in Italy, working with a fresh collection of actors who might become new collaborators, and hopefully spending time daydreaming about his next fully thought out project.
If you’ve followed much of Woody Allen’s career, you’ll know what to expect from his forgettable endeavors. Nothing really resonates in the movie, but there are at least a few genuine laughs (particularly out of the Roberto Benigni plot) and a handful of enjoyable performances (especially from Eisenberg, Pill, Baldwin, and Paige, who will undoubtedly be asked to come back and play with Woody again). Unlike Midnight in Paris, this one is for hardcore Woody Allen fans only and even they shouldn’t expect much. Ah well, at least it’ll only be a year before he redeems himself with the next movie. That’s Woody’s process, after all.