Film Review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The Dark Knight Rises
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Story by David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan
Screenplay by Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan

Rating: B+

Christopher Nolan and the rest of the creative team really dug themselves into a hole with The Dark Knight. They made quite possibly the greatest comic book movie of all time, featuring one of the brilliant performances in film history by the late Heath Ledger playing their character’s most compelling villain. Then they had to reconvene and write a third installment that would live up to the brilliance of its predecessor and close out their trilogy in a way that works. Although The Dark Knight Rises is not quite as good as The Dark Knight, it is by far the best super hero trilogy closer yet.

The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after The Dark Knight, a period during which Batman has disappeared and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse. Crime is almost non-existant in the city thanks to new laws inacted in Gotham City in honor of the late Harvey Dent, who is portrayed as a hero despite his fall. The relative peace of Gotham is destroyed with the coming of Bane, a terrorist leader hell-bent on annihilating Gotham under the false pretense of freeing it. Seemingly reluctantly involved is Catwoman, a woman named Selina Kyle who works as a thief to earn enough to get rid of the past she wants to get away from. With all of the trouble that starts to tear apart the city, Bruce Wayne comes out of his shell as Batman is forced to re-emerge.

There were two key issues based on the early information and trailers about the film that were the cause of most concern. The first of these is the casting of Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, which seemed suspect based on the scenes of her in action in the parts shown in the trailers. As it turns out, she very quickly proves that she is capable in the role, although not extraordinary. The second and most important concern was that Bane is a fairly boring villain after using both Two-Face and the Joker in the previous films, arguably the two most important villains in Batman’s canon. Bane is generally portrayed as a Mexican wrestler crossed with a ‘roid rager, and that doesn’t quite live up to the former District Attorney-turned-serial-killer of Two-Face or the Clown Prince of Crime. The film version is a signficant improvement over Bane’s depiction in the source material, but he is definitely not as charismatic or thrilling a villain as any of those previously shown in the series.

The biggest surprise of the movie is how much Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s storyline as young cop John Blake really made the movie. He is a very intelligent and capable cop, who in quieter times would obviously rise up in the ranks very quickly. It is hard not to be reminded of the idea of a young James Gordon in his absolute belief in the right thing, although we suspect Blake might even surpass Gordon in that respect. His relationship to Bruce Wayne and Batman in the film is a wonderful symbolism of what Batman as a figure means to all of the people in Gotham who don’t believe he was responsible for the death of Dent. Gordon-Levitt is outstanding in the role, and both Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman turn in their best performances in the trilogy for their parts as Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox, respectively.

Despite the underwhelming villain, the plot of The Dark Knight Rises is outstanding and the build up to the finale is really well done. There are some really great twists that won’t be spoiled here but that upped the satisfaction level, despite at least one major one being far too heavily foreshadowed. A final judgement on a film of this scope really has to be made after repeated viewings, but it is at least a very good conclusion to the mythos. There is a lot to say from a comic book geek perspective in terms of things that seemed strange to leave out, or choices made in the end about certain characters, but these are qualms that probably wouldn’t even be noticed by someone without a familiarity with the source material. In the end, it is hard not to wish that a better villain than Bane had been chosen to close out the Nolan trilogy, but it is hard to complain about the film as a whole.

Film Review: Batman: Year One (2012)

Batman: Year One
Directed by Lauren Montgomery & Sam Liu
Based on work by Frank Miller

Rating: A-

Frank Miller has two very important legacies in the history of Batman. The first of these is The Dark Knight Returns, a completely non-canon alternate reality story in which Batman comes out of retirement in middle age to kick some more ass and act like a total asshole. It is often seen as one of the great comic book stories of all time, but portrays Batman as chauvinistic and completely unlikable in attempt to make a grittier version of the dark knight. It is criminally overrated.

The second and far superior story that Miller contributed to the history of Batman is Batman: Year One, an aptly titled telling of Batman’s first year fighting crime as the caped crusader while future police commissioner James Gordon endures his first year on the force in Gotham as an honest man in a dishonest police department. Gordon is really the main character of the story; almost all of the narrative is from Gordon himself, voiced perfectly by Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame in this film version. Catwoman also appears in an almost-so-minor-it’s-pointless supporting role, portrayed very capably by Eliza Dushku. Katee Sackhoff of Battlestar Galactica is Detective Essen, Alex Rocco is mob boss Carmine Falcone, and Benjamin McKenzie is Batman himself.

A film adaptation that takes the source material and translates it to the screen exactly is almost pointless, but thoroughly enjoyable anyway. Although there is absolutely nothing different about it, seeing the film is a lot like reading the original story for the first time, and that has value. The voice cast is almost entirely stellar, although Batman could have been better cast. The visuals are perfect, and the entire production makes for an animated film that is just as enjoyable as the Christopher Nolan live action films. That being said, if you have already read the book, there is nothing new to experience here. Still, if you can appreciate a quality transfer between two mediums, Batman: Year One will be enjoyed.

Film Review: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Castle in the Sky
Written & directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Rating: B-

Hayao Miyazaki is by far the most successful Japanese director in the United States that is still active in film. Every time one of his movies gets translated to English and released in the States, there are hordes of people who make seeing it their first priority, much in the same way that fans of directors like Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, and Wes Anderson will see anything they put out because of the style that makes their films so unique. In the case of Miyazaki, it is a sort of environmentalist-tinged whimsy that feels distinctly Japanese and yet entirely accessible to just about anyone who has even the vaguest interest in anime.

Castle in the Sky (called such in the United States because the original title almost contained a derogatory word in Spanish) is a steampunk film featuring airships, goggles, flying cities, and just about everything else that people look for in the genre. It is one of Miyazaki’s earlier works (by comparison to recent efforts like Ponyo) and tells the story of a young girl being chased by the government who falls from the sky and is caught by a young boy. Her fall is slowed by the power of a strange glowing stone. The two become fast friends and decide to go out in search for her identity while simultaneously being concerned for the fate of Laputa, the last of the cities in the sky.

It is a pretty straight-forward adventure, which has its fun moments and strong voice acting (based on the most recent English language version featuring Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek, Mark Hamill, and Cloris Leachman) but doesn’t really go beyond that. Although it is far from a masterpiece, it is easy to enjoy for someone who is interested in anime and likes the steampunk aesthetic. It doesn’t have the same charm of Ponyo or the same impact of films like Princess Mononoke  or others, but it is worthwhile as a look at Miyazaki before he became the semi-household name he is now.