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Column Fri Jul 20 2012

The Dark Knight Rises, Trishna & The Magic of Belle Isle


The Dark Knight Rises

Why are you reading this? You already know whether or not you're going to see director/co-writer Christopher Nolan's concluding chapter in his three-film Batman story arc; you might even know how many times you're going to see The Dark Knight Rises. I've seen it twice, and I'll admit, the first time left me a little empty and partly unsatisfied with big sections of the story. But the second time brought a lot more together than I'd expected. As hard as it is to believe that a film written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan might be dense and feature a few too many characters for its own good, a repeat viewing did a lot to clear up what I thought were strange choices.

But the Nolans have earned the right to take whatever path they want to in closing out their time with the Dark Knight and his eclectic group of supporters and detractors, just as we've earned the right to question their choices. As an overall comment on The Dark Knight Rises, there are several instances where it seems the filmmakers take the most roundabout way to get from Point A to Point B, when a straight line might have been more advisable. As a result, the film feels like its loaded with a lot of filler, mostly in the form of extraneous characters. As a minor example, is Juno Temple's sidekick character to Anne Hathaway's cat burglar Selina Kyle completely necessary? I'd love to see someone make a case that she is. Even returning supporting players (some of whom were unexpected by me in their cameos) seem to just eat up time and scenery. Is it a nice inside joke that the one-time Batmanuel (Nestor Carbonell) returns as the mayor of Gotham? Of course. Is it necessary? Of course not.

But why pick on these minor characters. Let's pick on someone a little more important to Batman/Bruce Wayne. Let's talk about Alfred (Michael Caine), who spends the entire movie crying for various reasons, but mostly he feels like he has failed the Wayne parents in protecting their only son, Bruce (Christian Bale). Why this is just hitting him now — eight years after The Dark Knight — is beyond me. And when he reveals a certain piece of information in an effort to save Wayne's life and then leaves his employ, the impact is... negligible. Why not kill Alfred and have his absence from the film actually mean something? As his role stands, Alfred is just another voice in Wayne's head, one that he regularly ignores, and so do we.

What's even more bizarre about The Dark Knight Rises is that the titles seems wrong; maybe it should be The Dark Knight Vanishes. Seriously, there are huge sections of this film where Batman simply does not exist. And even when he does appear, he's a different crime fighter than he was eight years earlier. His hand-to-hand fighting is sloppy; part of that is by design — he's meant to show signs of physical injury and rust. And as much as I loved his new flying machine (called The Bat) designed by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), seeing Batman spend so much time flying over the streets of Gotham doesn't represent the man who used to enjoy getting in criminals' faces for shock value before he'd skillfully dispatch them with graceful martial arts.

Let's talk about extraneous plot. There's an extended sequence where Wayne is held in a prison on the other side of the earth from Gotham that actually has a way out for those skilled and brave enough to risk it. Now we know he's going to get out, so the drama is slightly undercut. But god, does that sequence seem to go on forever, and while the moment of his escape is fairly rousing, it takes forever to get us someplace we know without any doubt we're going to get to eventually. Bad call by Nolan for dragging that out.

And while all of these incremental time-sucks did their best to keep me from placing the film on the same pedestal that I do The Dark Knight, there is still so much here to love, even if part of that love feels like guilty pleasure. My favorite scenes of The Dark Knight Rises involve two new characters. The previously mentioned Ms. Kyle, who not only looks great in a stretchy jumpsuit, razored high heels and cat ears, but also is just a flat-out scrappy, snarling, selfish fighter who lives simply and sees herself as a woman who steals what she needs from people who can afford to go without. She plays both sides of the fence, but there a goodness to her that Wayne recognizes and appeals to.

I also really liked Joseph Gordon-Levitt's portrayal of smart, young police officer John Blake, who becomes a confidant and advisor to Police Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), and lets on early in the film that he doubts the myth surrounding Harvey Dent's death at the hands of Batman, whose identity he seems fairly certain of. A lot happens when Gordon-Levitt is on screen, and although I walked into the film blissfully ignorant of exactly what his role in this film would be, I was really pleased with his position in the Batman story by film's end.

But the most talked about character in The Dark Knight Rises is that of Bane (Tom Hardy), a psychotic mercenary who wears a mask that cover most of his lower face and should muffle his voice. But thanks to a little post-production tinkering, his voice is ridiculously clear most of the time, and his bizarre accent often crosses the line back and forth between Bela Lugosi's Dracula and Count Chocula. Others will debate this, but his strange, inconsistent voice still rings in my ears like a catchy tune. Make no mistake, I'm a unapologetic fan of what Hardy is doing here, even if it made me laugh half the time. The mask itself terrified me, looking like a strange sea creature ready to rip Bane's face clean off. Bane hooks his thumbs into his jacket or breast plate like he's posing for portrait, and there is no end to his confidence nor his ego.

Nolan has the unenviable task of trying to create another foil for Batman as memorable as Heath Ledger's take on The Joker, and that's just never going to happen. But Hardy is such a gifted and unusual actor that he succeeds in hypnotizing us with his cocksure stride, exaggerated gestures, and dark sense of humor. On the few occasions when he and Batman are on screen together, he practically makes Batman seem invisible and dull.

I'm only scratching the surface on the plot of The Dark Knight Rises, and that's completely by design. The themes of civil unrest, of the working and middle classes rising up to overthrow the well-to-do. These are all things that Bane encourages, although in the end all that happens is that he releases a thousand prisoners into the Gotham population, they torment the rich, and put them on trial for having too much, I guess. The actual citizens of Gotham don't really seem to join in the fight; they're too scared of a much bigger threat Bane has hanging over their heads that I won't reveal. I love that Bane wants to give the citizens hope before destroying them anyway; he's a cruel son of a bitch with a keen knowledge of how to drag out mental and physical torture.

Matthew Modine, Marion Cotillard and others play less-than-inspired characters, and subplots involving sustainable energy and who gets controlling interest in Wayne Enterprises were about as interesting as sorting my sock drawer. The Dark Knight Rises has a bloated feeling to it (and I'm not just talking about the way Hardy looks without his shirt on), but it's far from dismissible. There is going to be a great deal of discussion about the way the film ends, but I was quite moved and impressed with it.

And while I tend to begrudge people who dislike a film because it doesn't meet their preconceived expectations, I became frustrated with the missed opportunities and lack of a tighter plot. I don't fault the film for not going full throttle from beginning to end; I'm a huge advocate of character development and pauses in the action for contemplating of the implications of what's just happened. But that's not what's going on in The Dark Knight Rises; the film just stalls sometimes. But when it's engines are humming, it's a thing of majestic beauty. And if you think my opinions on the film are confusing, and you're not sure how much I liked the film, welcome to my head. Ultimately I'm recommending this movie but with a truckload of reservations. And by the way, if you don't see this movie on an IMAX screen, you're missing out on something extremely impressive. I'm less on the fence having seen it in that format.


I've said it before and I'll say it again, I love the films of Michael Winterbottom, the British director who seems fiercely determined never to repeat himself as he prolifically bounces from genre to genre making such diverse works as Jude, The Claim, 24 Hour Party People, A Mighty Heart, 9 Songs, The Killer Inside Me and The Trip. Not all of his films are great, but I'm encouraged that a filmmaker who refuses to be pigeonholed not only exists, but works so fast and produces such a high number of interesting works. His latest is a modern pass at Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles set in India, starring an all-Indian cast.

Freida Pinto stars as Trishna, who lives modestly with her family, working at a resort hotel so she can send the money back to her parents to cover expenses. Her good looks are noticed by Jay (Riz Ahmed), the son of the property's owner, and his charm and handsome features finally win her over. But after their first night together, Trishna flees and goes back to her family and is forced to work on her uncle's farm, where she finds out she's pregnant. Forcing his daughter to have an abortion, Trishna's father exiles her to an aunt and uncle's home to take care of the sick aunt and work a factory job to pay her way. She's miserable, but accepts the low life as penance for her moral slip. Eventually Jay finds her and asks her to move to Mumbai with him, where they will live together, and for a brief time, Trishna seems genuinely happy.

Trishna, like its source material, is the story of class divide and how one class controls the other. In the case of our Trishna and Jay, he essentially turns her into his courtesan, having her perform for him and have sex with him at his every whim. The real tragedy of the film is that their relationship didn't start that way; it's as if Winterbottom (who also wrote this adaptation) is saying Jay's bad behavior is a part of his privileged fiber. He was her savior and took advantage of the position he placed her in. The story is so tragic as to be difficult to watch at times, and Pinto is pushed as an actor far beyond her work in Slumdog Millionaire or Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Trishna languishes a bit in the middle when Pinto gets wrapped up in the world of choreography in Bollywood-style filmmaking. And while it was fascinating catches glimpses of these films being put together, those moments take away from the far more interesting inner turmoil of Trishna's world. This is a beautiful film that makes India appear so gorgeous, but it also makes a statement about how the well-to-do can afford to live in places like Jay does and never see the poverty-stricken world that Trishna emerged from. It's a curious and gripping film that doesn't entirely work, but will probably still pull you in thanks to its magnificent sights and sounds. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Magic of Belle Isle

If you want a little more Morgan Freeman than The Dark Knight Rises provides, look no further than the latest from director Rob Reiner (who last teamed with Freeman in The Bucket List), a story about Monte Wildhorn (Freeman), a popular writer of Western novels who hasn't written in many years for various reasons that are explored in the movie. He is dumped off in a house on the edge of a lake in Belle Isle to house-sit for a few months, and he meets Charlotte, the single mother who lives next door (Virginia Madsen), and her three daughters.

Monte's drinking keeps him pretty abrasive and away from others, but eventually he becomes friendly with the girls next door, and they mutually inspire each other to move forward with their lives. And since this is a Rob Reiner film, you pretty much know exactly how all of this is going to happen in the first 10 minutes. The Magic of Belle Isle isn't a bad movie because it's predictable; it's bad because it doesn't care that it is. Reiner has stopped trying. The setting is lovely, so he shoots the shit out of the picturesque locale; Morgan Freeman is in it, so let's have him narrate as well as star; Virginia Madsen is still a beautiful woman, so let's make her so warm and understanding that she sort of falls in love with Freeman. Seriously?

If the film had been based on a book where those things happened, then good on the filmmakers for sticking to the source material. But The Magic of Belle Isle is an original screenplay by Reiner and two other writers (who I won't embarrass by including their names here), so they actually chose to have one overly sentimental scene after another play out exactly as it does. The oldest daughter is a rebel, one of the younger ones is more sensitive, the other seems a little nondescript — but they all seem like characters purchased second-hand at the Trite and Cliché store. Even Freeman (whose character is in a wheelchair, so you can't totally hate him) doesn't appear to buy what he's selling.

One interesting side note for those of you keeping up on current events: Fred Willard appears briefly at a community function where he dispenses some wisdom, humor, and likely a bit of his man seed at the local peep show (thankfully off camera). You've got no business seeing this movie, even if you are typically a natural-born sap. But if you enjoy torture, the film opens today at the Landmark's Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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