The Dark Knight Rises

Top 10 of 2012 So Far: Part 2 of 2 (5-1)

#5 Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)

The allure of seeing Adam Rodriguez and Channing Tatum in the nude was all it took to convince millions of people to flock to one of this summer’s most talked about box office successes, Magic Mike. The hunky cast’s bulging biceps and bulging…well…bulges (“bulgi” ? Is that the plural form) came flying out of left field from director Steven Soderbergh, whose uniquely varied oeuvre includes everything from the bio-pocalypse (Contagion) to a porn star making her “acting” debut (Sasha Grey in the fantastic Girlfriend Experience). Whatever his subjects are, Soderbergh’s perspective has always been dark and dramatic, but here he goes all softie on us in his latest release, which is surprisingly a saccharine love story disguised as a tanned-and-toned exploitation of the male body. The vibe is part “Miami Vice,” part Showgirls, but with only a fraction of the campy silliness of both; Magic Mike stands erect (I’m sorry, I had to) on its own as a compelling exploration of gender roles and the amount of power & control either sex is willing to sacrifice in order to reach a happy medium in any given relationship.

#4Hope Springs (David Frankel)

Meryl Streep masturbation scene. Are you sufficiently intrigued? If your answer is “no,” then Hope Springs is your kind of movie. The subject matter sounds as provocative as that image does. An aging couple (Streep and Tommy Lee Jones) seek to stimulate their dying sex life at a week-long couples therapy retreat, following a step-by-step path to sexual bliss forged by a renowned therapist (Steve Carrell). The meatier bits of the film, directed by David Frankel (who catapulted Streep to an Oscar nomination for 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada), exude a tangible sense of defeat we often associate with getting older and “losing” our sexual appeal; but the juiciest parts don’t necessarily involve any wrinkle-on-wrinkle sexcapades, either. Instead, we’re treated to a delectable questioning of what it means to “age” or, in the case of Hope Springs, merely meander from the trail a much younger version of ourselves traversed and tucked away, but never forgot.  Meryl Streep masturbating is just hilarious icing on the cake.

#3The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)

The savory bits of the conclusion to Nolan’s Batman trilogy really don’t lie within the individual film itself. The importance of The Dark Knight Rises is, in a sense, its ability to successfully wrap up the series which birthed it, and it does a sensational job at that as the last exciting breath of action-packed air to escape (not as subtly as I would have liked) from the lungs of the saga as it dies. A hero is not perfect, and neither is Nolan’s conclusion to his fantastic trilogy, but at least he was able to show us that over the course of three complimentary films that work as an overall package, despite their various shortcomings. Nolan’s interpretation of Batman has always been a fantasy for the people of Gotham; a beacon of hope in a shadowy underworld, the city a mere reflection what we as an audience should see within ourselves, questioning our own governances and societal positions. The line between patriarchal rule and violent force is something which has become altogether blurred through Nolan’s lens, The Dark Knight Rises his Fourth of July fireworks display; the capstone of his blossoming small-scale revolution.

#2Celeste & Jesse Forever (Lee Toland Krieger)

I’ve really been digging all of these actress-screenwriter powerhouses taking Hollywood by storm as of late. Kristen Wiig made perhaps the biggest splash of them all last year with her mega-hit Bridesmaids, and Lena Dunham (hot off the heels of writing and directing Tiny Furniture) stormed cable television sets across the country with the best show of the year, “Girls.” Rashida Jones (of “Parks & Recreation” and “The Office” fame) joins their ranks as a fresh-minded, endearing actress-screenwriter with “Celeste & Jesse Forever,” a quirky “female” romantic comedy that’s content with anything but sitting in the corner and simply looking pretty. Jones’ performance and writing shows pure beauty of the movies; as entertainment (some of the most hilarious juvenile humor I’ve ever encountered can be found here) and mirrored life, hand in hand, in a film that refuses to give in to stereotypes of a crumbling relationship. Celeste and Jesse were once a couple, now separated but still very much “together” seeing as they live in the same house, hang out, and spend what seems to be every waking moment in each other’s presence. Jesse seems to find letting Celeste go a bit easier than the other way around, but that doesn’t stop the fairer half of the duo from “accepting” her place as being forever known as “ex-wife” in casual introductions when they show up to the same party. Jones’ writing here blazes through the bullshit of Hollywood romance, exposing us to an unconventional relationship with fresh eyes, allowing us to see anew something we thought we’d long become familiar with, sort of how Celeste traverses through Jones’ breathtakingly beautiful script.

#1Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)

In these times of political and social turmoil, a film like Beasts of the Southern Wild comes as a much-needed dose of pure inspiration. Telling the story of a little girl named Hushpuppy who lives with her father in the fictional land known only as “The Bathtub” (think Katrina-era, low-income New Orleans), Beasts of the Southern Wild pits a tiny soul against a big world, one that’s far too encompassing for her to understand on “adult” terms. Instead, she resorts to talking to animals, indulging in fantasy (even though the world around her just wants her to die because of her social status), and enjoying the simple pleasures of being a kid; anything to escape the oppressive, prejudiced society that exists on the other side of The Bathtub’s walls. But she’s a child who, by all means, shouldn’t find pleasure in anything at all. The Bathtub is a destitute place, with the majority of residents living in run-down huts in the middle of the woods, dining on raw fish and crustaceans, and whose homes give the people on “Hoarders” a serious run for their money; but that’s just the thing, while Bathtub residents have no money, they make the most of life for themselves. Hushpuppy tells us that The Bathtub has more parties than any other place in the world and that its residents are the happiest. Aligned with her innocent perspective and unflinchingly optimistic spirit, we believe it. The film’s conclusion reads depressing and inspirational all at once, and drives the impact of this powerful parable home exquisitely. The film has a heart and soul that drips with sympathy for anyone who can relate to social oppression, but the true driving force behind Beasts’ greatness is the radiant spirit exuding from that of little Quvenzahne Wallis (practice the name—you’re going to be seeing it a lot come Oscar season), who plays Hushpuppy with a quiet ferocity that manifests in moments of haunting authenticity and the earnest, undying will of a child making something great out of what she’s given, which becomes of tangible importance to the finished product of the film she’s playing in as well.

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Coming Full Circle; “The Dark Knight Rises” Runs Rings around the Superhero Genre

Eternity; the pang of our unyielding hunger for more Batman goodness has endured for what seems like one. An insatiable need for the raw, the real, and the nitty gritty from the underbelly of the often overly commercialized “superhero” action subgenre birthed itself after our exposure to the cinematic tools (rising above mere goodie-slams-baddie-with-amazing-CGI gimmicks) contemporary auteur Christopher Nolan brought to the table in 2005’s Batman Begins. It was a reboot of an aging film franchise no one dared rouse from its defeated slumber since Joel Schumacher’s 1997 disastrous Batman & Robin, a rebirth which not only taunted the sleeping giant but forcibly prodded its awakening with brute force and cinematic mastery.

The release of Begins’ sequel, 2008’s The Dark Knight, saw Nolan exacting a razor sharp precision and understanding of the essence of his iconic subject; the aura of darkness which surrounded the mythos of the Batman universe oozed from every corner of the film, fully deconstructing our ideas of what a “superhero movie” should be. With these two films, Nolan became the “fantasy” killer; a harbinger of a new breed of “superhero movie” that wasn’t a “superhero” movie at all.

And so, we come full circle. Seven years; the amount of time its taken The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s fantastic conclusion to his Batman trilogy, to see the light of day. Seven years well-spent, building to a momentous finale that’s as viscerally pleasing as Batman Begins yet lacking the lyrical, sinister darkness that made Rise‘s direct predecessor the crowning jewel of the entire franchise, Nolan or non.

In Gotham City, eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent (a political figurehead and defender of Gotham) is dead, the crime rate is down, and the city’s sole beacon of hope hobbles around its decrepit mansion like an old man after one too many whiskey sours. This is a mere shell of a man, limping and struggling to regain composure after one scene sees a woman half his frame and a quarter of his build literally knock him off his feet; this isn’t the man who went toe-to-toe with the Joker but a single film ago—that’s the point exactly—this is Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the “human” behind the mask, fading away in the shadows of Batman, a face Mr. Wayne can no longer wear thanks to the murderous accusations which taint it. Gotham no longer needs a hero, for Harvey Dent lives on in post-death legislation and honorary holidays immortalizing his protective legacy…or so they thought.

And alas, the image of security can only sustain for so long; Gotham needs Batman once again after a devious plot to destroy Gotham comes via Bane (Tom Hardy), a mysterious brute originating from the Ra’s al-Ghul (Liam Neeson, who makes a brief cameo here) school of villainy, hell-bent on carrying out his forefather in crime’s wishes of scraping scum like Gotham City from the bottom of earth’s boot. Bane’s plot involves shutting Gotham off from the rest of the world, making routes into and out of the city impassable via some impressive explosion sequences, staging a jailbreak of Gotham’s most vicious criminals, and instigating an all-out overthrow of the bourgeois world people like Bruce Wayne inhabit. After a few weeks of the underdogs rising against “the man,” a nuclear weapon will detonate, destroying everything within a six mile radius.

The initial “attacks” range from visually stunning (an airplane sequence which opens the film) to socially commentative (an attack on the stock exchange) to a combination of the two (a football stadium is eviscerated), culminating in a grim tone that, in true Nolan fashion, forces the audience to examine their own commercially conditioned morals, seeing as bourgeois societal control is an equal partner in crime here.

Bane’s villainous intentions share similarities, in many ways, to those of Heath Ledger’s now-infamous Joker in The Dark Knight. Anarchy is key for both men; at the very least it’s stripping power from those who have been deemed worthy only by a public system of urban politics and blind submission of Gothamites, citizens who have been taught to fear Batman because he supposedly killed Harvey Dent, but willingly indulge in the monetary splendors Bruce Wayne pumps into the city. Once Bane shows up, however, they’re more than willing to embrace the former. The point being; power (through fear or through money) rules Gotham, and once fear trumps money and renders it useless, well, what else is left to do other than submit? And it’s here that we truly start to miss the antics of the Joker. Where the Joker played upon the morals of his victims, Bane is a mere brute wall (literally and figuratively) of villainous flesh, a chunk of evil who’s too bulky and cold to inspire empathy yet too fantastical to take entirely serious. Bane is a force where the Joker was a presence, and in that transition of evil we lose a sense of depth (and a key character with whom we could have identified with) along the way.

The Joker, in essence, is the sort of villain birthed from the societal confines of depravity, going after the elite social order that it was, at times, hard not to will the destruction of in The Dark Knight. Part of his appeal (and the film’s appeal, for that matter) was the ease with which we could understand (not necessarily “agree with”) his intentions. Attempting to fill that void in The Dark Knight Rises is an outcast in the form of Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), also born into the lower echelon of Gotham’s class structure, who’s made a career of stealing from the rich and willing the demise of the bourgeoisie; her ideas of overthrowing Gotham’s first-class citizens are realized, albeit not by her own hands. Willing something to happen means nothing if action isn’t taken, and she straddles a fine line between “light” and “dark” that only a wishy-washy, pseudo-villain-with-heapings-of-charm could. While Hathaway is the best “performer” of the actors in the film, her character’s presence is unjustified and, to be honest, entirely unnecessary except to balance the unmotivated “necessity” for Bruce to find love where the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in The Dark Knight left a void. It’s difficult not to compare Hathaway’s Catwoman to that of Michelle Pfeiffer’s in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, if only to place into perspective the former’s frivolous presence. Hathaway is playfully sassy and Pfeiffer was darkly sinister, the latter a consummated affair where former is but a mere striptease.

In fact, it’s the film’s superfluous elements which ultimately detach The Dark Knight Rises from any level of supreme greatness it could have achieved. The screenplay is bloated with far too many characters, events, subplots, and other excess fat which could have been easily trimmed to narrow the focus. But, I get it; the scope of the Batman universe has never been about downplaying anything, and the task of wrapping up one of the most inventive reboots in cinematic history is no easy task. The strength of the film lies within its ability to simply remain faithful to the tone and scope of Nolan’s initial blueprint in Batman Begins; whereas the evils of The Dark Knight were much more disturbing, complex, and brimming with the passion of indulging within its own sinister mythos, The Dark Knight Rises feels cold and calculated, thrilling on the surface but, thankfully, twisted and morally ambiguous in its own right. It is, at times, difficult to choose a moral “side” of the battle, primarily because the power of Nolan’s Batman saga as a whole has always been the ability to present the material slightly ambiguously; yes, we think killing is “wrong” and there is a clear distinction between “hero” and “villain,” but who can’t feel inclined, at least in part, to side with someone like the Joker, morally corrupt but with intent to destroy an equally corrupt system of bourgeois politics and societal oppression?

Perhaps I’m getting too philosophical for my own good. The savory bits of the conclusion to Nolan’s Batman trilogy really don’t lie within the individual film itself. The importance of The Dark Knight Rises is, in a sense, its ability to successfully wrap up the series which birthed it, and it does a sensational job at that as the last exciting breath of action-packed air to escape (not as subtly as I would have liked) from the lungs of the saga as it dies. A hero is not perfect, and neither is Nolan’s conclusion to his fantastic trilogy, but at least he was able to show us that over the course of three complimentary films that work as an overall package, despite their various shortcomings. Nolan’s interpretation of Batman has always been a fantasy for the people of Gotham; a beacon of hope in a shadowy underworld, the city a mere reflection what we as an audience should see within ourselves, questioning our own governances and societal positions. The line between patriarchal rule and violent force is something which has become altogether blurred through Nolan’s lens, The Dark Knight Rises his Fourth of July fireworks display; the capstone of his blossoming small-scale revolution.

Dark Knight “Rises” In Pittsburgh; Hathaway, Cotillard, Bale in the Steel City

"The Dark Knight Rises" Filming in Oakland, Pittsburgh. Photo by me.

Oh, you know. Just Batman fighting some bad guys on the streets of Pittsburgh.  No big deal.

And no, I’m not talking about one of the crazy PAT bus patrons trolling the streets of Oakland at 1 AM  who think they’re Batman. Nope, this is the real deal. And it’s all unfolding about four streets over from my house in Oakland.

I know the photo is terrible, but it’s a miracle I even got that shot because I was having such frantic bursts of excitement. I cannot contain myself over the fact that I was about 100 feet away from Anne Hathaway. That kind of stuff drives me crazy.

Not to mention the fact that Marion Cotillard and I have been breathing the same smoggy air for the past week or so, and will be doing so until the end of August. If I see her on the street, I’m thinking of taking an alternate approach to the whole “rabid fan meets idol” thing. Perhaps I’ll just stand with my back hunched a bit, arms outstretched, frantically wailing “MARCEEEL! MAAARRRCEEELLLLLLL!”. Insert laughter from those who also love “La vie en Rose” here.

The scene in the picture above, however, yielded only momentary glimpses of the action. Bale and Hathaway were spotted leaving the set about a minute or two before I got there, and filming quickly concluded about 30 seconds after that. Dozens of extras dressed in Gotham police attire boarded about 6 busses outside the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, where Bigelow (the street directly in front of the building) is closed off to house trailers and equipment trucks.

Today production is taking the crew to Heinz Field, where a mock football game is being held with hundreds of extras. That should be interesting. Pittsburghers know how to chear a damn team. I’m just concerned about how those bright yellow monstrosities also known as “Heinz Field seating” are going to look onscreen.

In other news, I’m currently trying to get Michael Keaton’s reaction to the franchise he’s such an iconic part of filming in his hometown. Hell, I went to the same high school as him. The same church. I even lived about 10 houses down from where his late mother resided until her death.

Keaton sent me this message, however.

Thank you very much but I am working on different interview pieces right now and don’t want them to overlap and I can’t find the time right now anyway.  Thanks again. MK

According to the movie editor here, I should simply reply in a week with five questions he can answer via email. “He’ll definitely do that” she says. I certainly hope so.

Val Kilmer and Adam West have also been contacted on my end. Here’s to hoping I don’t have to flash any bat signals in the sky to muster a response from any of them.