The Dark Knight Rises: Batman’s Apex (2012, Directed by Christopher Nolan) English 9

Starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Ben Mendelsohn, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

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(9-Great Film)

Epic. Satisfying. Austere.

When relatively unknown, at least in mainstream circles, filmmaker Christopher Nolan took on the Batman reboot all those years ago, who could have predicted what came next? I don’t recall any significant anticipation for the first film, Batman Begins, leading up to its release, but, for those who saw it, we knew it signaled something different. The first part of Nolan’s epic trilogy went beyond just a, “darker take on the material,” as it is so often billed and as it was promoted then. It was an intelligent action picture, an ensemble character drama, a crime epic. I didn’t realize how incredibly ridiculous the previous four Batman films were until Christopher Nolan’s Batman; especially Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Can you even explain the plot of Batman Forever? What is The Riddler’s (played hilariously by Jim Carrey, the film’s saving grace, ) master plan? To put televisions on people’s heads? I love Michael Keaton’s take on the Batman, an almost unexplained, enigmatic man. Batman gets more screen time than Bruce Wayne it feels like in the first version, 1989’s Batman, but even that picture with Jack Nicholson dancing around to a hot new Prince soundtrack submerged into goofiness at times. Christopher Nolan grounded his take on the Batman in reality, or as close to as possible with the material. Gone are the half-human, half-penguin antagonists of yore, and in come the very human, philosophic villains of the Dark Knight Trilogy. Every villain in the series has a philosophy, a compelling one to boot, and one of the main struggles is for Batman while being seduced by this philosophy, to stand up and prove it false. Each villain’s philosophy essentially came down to, “humans are inherently bad,” and Gotham is not worth saving. Watching these films, seeing the level of corruption and depravity the city is immersed in, I’d be inclined to agree, but Nolan’s Batman never does, and this is the foundation of the new Batman (now, the benchmark Batman’s) heroism. As played by Christian Bale, considered a strong actor with a cult following before the series made him an A-list movie star, Batman is the brooding, thoughtful hero we deserved.

So, anyways, Batman Begins hits theaters in 2005 and changed everything. The late great Roger Ebert declared, “This is, at last, the Batman movie I’ve been waiting for. The character resonates more deeply with me than the other comic superheroes, perhaps because when I discovered him as a child, he seemed darker and more grown-up than the cheerful Superman. He has secrets.” Ebert gave the film four stars, an anomaly at the time for superhero movies, a genre of film that had not yet reached its prime. Batman Begins ushered in the new, now seemingly never-ending, wave of superhero flicks. It showed that superhero movies could be serious.

Next came, The Dark Knight, and it was as if the world shifted on its axis. I can recall some of my feelings leading up to that film. Heath Ledger as the Joker? Really? Yes, I remember questioning the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker, as incredible as that seems now. He died before the film’s release, but as soon as we saw the first trailer, the excitement was at a boiling point. It released to rave reviews, another four-star review from Ebert and became the second highest grossing film domestically of all time. When it failed to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, complaints were made, and many feel its snub is the reason the Academy switched from five nominations for Best Picture to ten.

Finally, four years later, Christopher Nolan is now the biggest director in the world, and The Dark Knight Rises releases. After the colossal heights of The Dark Knight, still considered the best of all superhero films, how could The Dark Knight Rises not be anti-climactic? For some, that is, because I consider The Dark Knight Rises the best of the trilogy, despite its conspicuous flaws (Marion Cotillard’s unconvincing death, the mystery of how Bruce gets from the weird prison back to Gotham). The Dark Knight Rises is the best film about Batman. It’s his movie. The Dark Knight, while an excellent film, saw its title character dwarfed by Heath Ledger’s greatness. The Joker is one of film’s greatest villains and he owned that movie. The Dark Knight Rises introduces a new villain, Bane, played by Tom Hardy, but his character is more like a foil meant to enrich Bruce Wayne’s mythology. He’s stronger than Batman. He’s faster than Batman. He wants to destroy everything Bruce Wayne loves.

When the film starts out, we get a spectacular sequence showing off impressive stunt work in the air as Bane and his cronies demolish a plane and set their mysterious plot in motion. Cut to Gotham, and we learn while on the surface this once chaotic city is now at peace, that peace is rather tenuous and comes at the expense of truth. Batman and Commissioner Gordon (Oldman) have propagated the idea that Harvey Dent was a hero who died for the city at the hands of Batman, which somehow is responsible for the current state of the city. It’s been eight years since the events of the Dark Knight. No one has seen or heard from Batman or Bruce Wayne in that time (or put two and two together apparently). It’s no longer young Batman as it was in Batman Begins. He’s older now, physically old. We see the toll Batman’s taken on Bruce Wayne. We’re introduced to Catwoman (played by Anne Hathaway) as she steals from Bruce, and flirts a little. She later warns him that something huge is coming, something bad. She knows about Bane. Bane has taken over leadership of the League of Shadows, picking up where Ra’s al Ghul left off in his determination to destroy Gotham, or really to purge the city. In essence, playing Old Testament God, wiping out civilization, to start over again anew.

To stop him, Batman is physically tested beyond anything he’s ever experienced before. In the best scene of the film, around the middle point of this 3 hour epic, Batman runs into Bane for the first time. It’s a trap, set up by a desperate Catwoman. Batman and Bane begin a brutal fistfight, in the leaky sewers, which ends in the latter breaking the back (and the mask) of our hero. Batman destroyed, a broken Bruce Wayne begs to be killed. Bane responds diabolically, “You can watch me torture an entire city and when you have truly understood the depth of your failure, we will fulfill Ra’s al Ghul’s destiny… We will destroy Gotham and then, when it is done and Gotham is ashes, then you have my permission to.”

This sets up another great sequence. Broken Bruce Wayne is held in a bizarre underground prison where escape is nearly impossible. Again, where The Joker tested the people of Gotham, Bane tests Bruce Wayne. The best scenes in the film are between Bane and Batman. Their two boxing matches framing the arc of Bruce’s story. This is a long film with much going on to fill its running time, but I mainly cared about Bruce. Like previous entries, this is an ensemble drama with plenty of characters getting their moments. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a new character named John Blake (later becoming Robin), Bruce has two love interests in Miranda Tate (Cotillard) and Selina Kyle or Catwoman, and old stalwarts Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman return in their roles helping Bruce.

The film ends echoing another great epic, the classic A Tale of Two Cities, with Bruce making the ultimate sacrifice like Sydney Carton in Dickens’ tale, who was, himself, a sort of Christ figure. I found it to be a fitting end, and though you could make a case for the penultimate scene being ambiguous or part of a character’s imagination, I’m fine with the happy ending. A great end for a great film in a great trilogy.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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Warlock: Revisiting the legend of Wyatt Earp (1959, Edward Dmytryk) English 10

Starring Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone, Dolores Michaels, DeForest Kelly

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(10-Masterpiece)

Underrated. Thoughtful. Subversive.

With today’s climate of mistrust of law enforcement and the apparent gulf of recent history that separates police and the black community on my mind, I watched, or rewatched rather, Edward Dmytryk’s little-seen western classic, Warlock. Though his credits cross into all corners of genre fare, the director is probably best known for his film noirs; Crossfire or Murder, My Sweet for example. B pictures. Mysteries. Crime stories. Films that depict and stylize their urban setting and characters. I believe it’s an urban sensibility that Dmytryk brings to Warlock, and that makes it so unique despite familiar trappings. Through a slight spin on the archetypal outlaw heroes coming to the rescue of a beleaguered town narrative, Dmytryk probes the complicated symbiotic nature of society’s need for authority and its resentment towards that same authority.

The film starts out as many westerns do. Small, dusty town. Violent gang rides in. The only law and order present comes in the form of a sheriff who now wishes he was anywhere else. I could be describing any one of dozens of westerns you’ve seen. The violent gang ties and drag the weakling sheriff by his horse, before murdering him. They get the town’s barber too for good measure. This story has been told so many times, its formula recycled, precisely because it is so satisfying and exciting for the viewer. But Warlock isn’t one of those movies that simply rehashes the formula, and its unique perspective on the genre starts to materialize in the next scene. The town folk meet and discuss a plan of action, with the majority agreeing they should hire Clay Blaisedell, a vigilante lawman to come and protect their town. However, there are opponents. While many suggest Blaisedell as a savior, a judge calls him a vigilante, gunman, gambler. Already we see our film’s protagonist not as a clear cut hero but as a subject of controversy. Eventually, they decide to bring Blaisedell in, and, with that, we see our star, Henry Fonda riding in, cloaked in black, accompanied by Anthony Quinn. Fonda plays Blaisedell and Quinn, his sidekick, Tom Morgan, a notorious gambler and cripple. The two are clearly modeled on Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, and adding to this effect is Fonda’s previous iconic portrayal of Earp in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine. The two actors must have starred in a few dozen westerns combined. Seeing them ride in on horses seems no promise of new material, but seeing the two play off and distort their personas is one of the film’s chief pleasures. Immediately, the judge confronts Fonda, and calls the nature of his work, murder. Fonda smiles and blows him off. He then addresses the town in the saloon, so that he can give his terms, and they can give theirs. Again, we see dissension where we usually see accord in these type of films, as the town folk quarrel over how they want the villains handled. “Get rid of them,” says one. “Wait a minute, they’re not all bad,” says another. They’re not so sure they want Tom Morgan hanging around, and finally a schoolmarm chimes in that she doesn’t approve of Fonda’s status, but she’s in the minority. Fonda starts in. “You won’t be in the minority very long. People generally begin to resent me. It’s part of the job. It will happen. I come here as your salvation at a very high wage. I establish order. Ride rough shot over offenders. First, you’re pleased because there’s a good deal less trouble. Then a strange thing happens. You begin to feel I’m too powerful. You begin to fear me. Not me, but what I am.” And from this point forward the film’s main theme has been set up. Juvenal’s “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies” or “who will watch the watchmen.”

There are three key male figures in the film. One, we’ve already mentioned, is Anthony Quinn’s Tom Morgan, an outlaw with a crippling condition. Quinn is a two time Oscar winner and he should have won a third Best Supporting Actor here. Known for playing tough, vigorous characters, Quinn here is an introvert. A man who worships his partner to the point that he values Blaisedell’s life over his own. There have been readings that have suggested an early subtext of homosexuality in this relationship, where Tom Morgan harbors unrequited feelings for his running mate, and there are scenes that one can point to. When Blaisedell is shot, Morgan grabs his arm tenderly. A female character, in spite, threatens to stand laughing over Blaisedell’s dead body because, as she says, she knows that would hurt him worse than if he was dead. Most significantly, Tom Morgan reveals late in the film that Blaisedell is the only person, man or woman, that looked at him and didn’t see a cripple. You could also alternatively call this relationship a symptom of severe hero worship, but back to the original point, we see in him as a distortion of the western sidekick. A repressed deputy. A dangerous man. Tom Morgan is a sympathetic figure…at times. He’s also a pimp, a murderer, and a violent alcoholic. He convinces Blaisedell to kill an innocent man out of jealousy.

The second key male figure is Johnny Gannon, a young delinquent, played by Richard Widmark, who actually received first billing. I find this significant, in that it establishes whose perspective we are meant to engage with. All three of the male protagonists share close to the same screen time, but instead of the town saviors, we are asked to view a member of the outlaw gang, who feels guilty for his way of life, as the hero. Gannon’s a young man who’s fallen in with the wrong crowd. This characterization points to the urban sensibility of Dmytryk I spoke of earlier.

Finally, we have Henry Fonda, who received second billing but is really the soul of the picture. At the time the movie came out, western heroes were stoic saints. John Wayne and Fonda were unimpeachable. Here, Fonda is as able and cool as ever, but he’s not always right. He’s a man who makes his living in violence, and there is a toll that’s represented in this film. He’s not above attention, as he wields his golden handled guns, and sells tickets to watch him essentially kill outlaws. His word is law. It’s his way or the highway, as it had always been for Wayne and Fonda, but for the first time, we see that aspect of their persona affect others. In one of the final scenes, Fonda and Widmark have a confrontation, and Fonda comes across as a last word freak, to borrow a modern expression. That he can balance these flaws with his original persona, and still maintain a believable hero, is to me, an achievement of supreme acting. He’s still a hero, just a flawed one. This performance bridges the gap between the Fonda of My Darling Clementine and the vicious Fonda of Once Upon a Time in the West, and it’s been said that Warlock was, the latter film’s director, Sergio Leone’s favorite film. As said before, the Earp and Holliday story has been told so many times. Even by 1959, it had fallen into the category of myth. But what if the ones saving the town become as oppressive as the original oppressors? With that angle, Warlock sets out to chart new territory. It’s a psychological western, a harbinger of the much more appreciated Unforgiven, and, in its own right, a masterpiece.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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