Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises –
An Epic Conclusion

I was fortunate enough to see The Dark Knight Rises just hours before the senseless tragedy in Colorado, but it seems a little frivolous to even try to sit down a critique the movie only days afterward. I want to send my thoughts and prayers to those who have been affected by this violent act.

Eight years have passed (in movie time) since the events of The Dark Knight, Gotham City is crime free thanks to the Batman (although he and Commissioner Gordon decided to give the late Harvey Dent all the credit so as not to smear his name), but a new menace has come to town in the form of Bane, a muscle-bound mask-wearing thug bent on reducing the city to ashes and giving the 99% what they deserve. What's a retired superhero to do, especially when the man inside the costume is himself a broken down husk living the life of a recluse inside his gigantic mansion? When Bane and his men manage to acquire a copy of Bruce Wayne's fingerprints (courtesy of cat burglar Selina Kyle) and wipe out his fortune on a bad investment and then set off a series of bombs beneath Gotham City that cuts them off from the rest of the world, Wayne has no choice but to don the cape and cowl yet again.

The Dark Knight Rises is Christopher Nolan's epic conclusion to his Dark Knight trilogy that started with Batman Begins back in 2005. The new film actually closes out the story introduced in that film, virtually ignoring the events of The Dark Knight (Nolan preferred not to have any references to The Joker out of respect for the late Heath Ledger), so a refresher view of that film may be in order before tackling the new one. The introduction of the villain Bane, played by Tom Hardy (unrecognizable under his mask, with his face only being seen once in a fleeting flashback), brings us back to the first film in the trilogy because his reason for coming to Gotham is to finish what Wayne's mentor-turned-bad guy Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson) started – get rid of the corruption and return the city to the people. Bane wants to steal a device created by Wayne Industries that was intended to produce free, unlimited, green energy, but of course it's a device that can also be turned into a bomb with a little tinkering (which is why the device was never publicly revealed). The question is: How does Bane even know about this device? He's obviously got someone on the inside of the corporation helping him, but who?

We're also introduced to Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), the sexy cat burglar (never referred to as Catwoman) who is tied in to Bane's plan, and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), the partner on the green energy project who lost a lot of money when it was tabled, but becomes Wayne's ally after the failed takeover of Wayne Industries. It's up to her and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to keep the city safe once they discover what Bane is up to. And there's also John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the idealistic young police officer who learns what really happened to Harvey Dent and the sacrifice the Batman made to save the city. But with all of these characters either trying to save or destroy the city, not everything is as it seems and there is one major plot twist in the third act of the movie that completely changes everything you thought you knew was going on (and anyone familiar with Batman lore probably already knows the big twist and the true identity of one of the characters).

So with all of this action, not to mention the psychological aspects of Bruce Wayne and Batman, is the movie all its been expected to be? I say yes, even with its various problems. I've seen plenty of griping from the hardcore Bat-fans about the plot,the ending, and inconsistencies … and the fact that for a Batman movie, there is actually very little Batman (or Bruce Wayne for that matter). Yeah, it is odd to conclude a story with the title character barely there, but does that make it a terrible movie? Not at all. I was engrossed by the story and shocked by the reveal of the villain's true identity (no, I don't follow the comics or graphic novels), and Nolan's staging of the action is masterful, especially when you know that most of it was done on set and not with CGI effects.

Are there problems with the storytelling? Definitely. Sometimes it doesn't make a lick of sense and the twist pretty much undoes everything you believed up to that point. Yes, there is a shocking lack of Batman, and the movie actually gives Bane the bulk of the screen time. But none of that mattered to me. The only thing that really bugged me was Bane's ridiculous voice. When the first trailer hit, everyone complained that you couldn't understand a word he said through the mask. Apparently that's been fixed, but now it's just too clear and … bizarre. He sounds like Christopher Plummer in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country! It's very odd to see this huge, muscular guy talk like a 70-year-old Englishman (and in the graphic novel, Bane is actually from South America!). The voice was off-putting, and anyone could have been under that mask (which reminded me of the Tusken Raiders of Star Wars). The pluses, though, outweigh the negatives. Despite the original scoffing, Anne Hathaway was excellent as Selina Kyle. She was sexy, alluring, and could really kick ass. Plus she brought the film most of its lighter moments when things were starting to get a little too dark and depressing. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was also an excellent choice for Blake. He was totally believable in some pretty unbelievable situations, and he gets a nice character arc that runs through to the end of the movie. And I have to give props to Michael Caine, returning as Alfred. He has a terrific scene with Bale as Alfred has had enough of Wayne dressing up as the Batman that left me in tears.

Overall, The Dark Knight Rises may not be a perfect film, and it certainly can never live up to the extremely high expectations some people had placed on it before it opened, but it was still an epic (nearly three hours) film with some terrific performances that fittingly brought to a close Christopher Nolan's version of the Batman story. And that is certainly the key thing to remember – this is Christopher Nolan's vision of the Batman story. He says he's done with it now, but the ending suggests the story could continue. I'm certain it will in one way or another, but for now, this version of the Batman saga is done and it's been a great ride.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man
swings back into action

Stop me if you've heard this one before: Put upon high-school kid Peter Parker wanders into a lab where he doesn't belong and gets bitten by some kind of mutated spider. He suddenly develops the ability to sense when things are going to happen, he has super-human strength, and he can climb walls and hang from ceilings (alas, he cannot actually shoot webs from his wrists; he has to create a device to accomplish that feat). His new-found powers also seem to be the direct cause of creating another human-animal mutation that wants to take over the world with its new-found powers, so Parker breaks out his new-found sewing skills, creates himself a snazzy/sexy skintight costume complete with mask, and takes to the streets of Manhattan as the amazing Spider-Man. Oh, yeah, he's also crushing on a girl in his class who seems to be intrigued by him as well.

You have heard this story? Of course you have! Way, way, way back in 2002, Toby Maguire donned the skintight red and blue costume to battle a scientific genius (who only wore a green mask instead of turning into a monster), and fall in love with Mary Jane Watson, played by Kirsten Dunst. The movie was a smash, which was followed in 2004 by an even better sequel which was followed by a far inferior sequel in 2007 that brought the trilogy to a close. But Sony, always looking for new ways to make a buck, decided that all they really needed to do was recast the main roles and produce a new film. It's certainly not unheard of (i.e. Bond, Batman), but fans we weary of a new film after the last mess, and the notion that no one could fill out the suit quite like Maguire.

So the solution was to basically pretend the previous trilogy didn't exist and start from scratch. Which is probably the biggest problem with The Amazing Spider-Man. Unless you're taking very young kids who have never seen any of the previous films, have never seen a cartoon or read a comic book, then the origin story of Peter Parker is pretty well-known by everyone who goes to see this movie. And it takes about an hour to tell that story, which borders on tedium for those in the know. We really just want some Spider-Man action to kick the movie into gear. The other problem with the movie is that it's all over the place. Peter (Andrew Garfield) wants to use his new powers to track down the guy who killed his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), so he scans the police radio frequencies for any hint of an assailant that matches the description of the killer. This whole plot, however, gets completely sidetracked once Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) becomes The Lizard (a result of his own scientific experiments to help people regenerate their own lost limbs), but at least this finally brings some much needed action to the movie.

I know there are people out there who hated the movie from beginning to end, but I'm not one of them. It was okay in places, you could see glimmers of what the movie could have been, but that origin story set-up just takes way too long. The big question is: Why even reboot the franchise? Why not just pick up where the last movie left off (or ignore Spider-Man III and pick up where the second left off like Warner Brothers did with Superman Returns)? I think the clue lies in a specific name that keeps being mentioned throughout the movie – Norman Osbourne. Sound familiar? Yes, Norman Osbourne was The Green Goblin, Spider-Man's nemesis in the first movie. Osbourne also died, with son Harry picking up the slack, but his issues with Peter were resolved by the end of the trilogy. But The Green Goblin is Spider-Man's most well-known adversary, so the only way to reintroduce the character back into the mythology is to completely restart the story (which means Doctor Octopus can also return). I don't know that The Lizard was the best way to go as far as a villain though, because for a movie with a ginormous budget, I was not all that impressed with the CGI or the look of the creature, especially the face. Something about it was just … off.

Besides the meandering plot, there are also things that are introduced and never followed through like the Spider-Man perspective shots. This was something director Andrew Webb (no pun intended) wanted to give the audience throughout the movie, but I can really only recall two times when this was used correctly. Also, Peter's high school nemesis, Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka), suddenly becomes Peter's best bud after Uncle Ben's untimely demise. It seems totally out of character and comes completely out of left field. I could see Flash maybe going easy on Peter right after the death, but for the character to do a complete 180 like that made absolutely no sense. And then there's the hunt for Uncle Ben's killer. It seems that every crook in New York has stringy blond hair, but only one of them has a tattoo on his wrist, and Peter never finds him (of course, they had to rewrite history in the original trilogy for Peter to find out who Uncle Ben's real killer was in the third movie (I think), so I suspect this plot thread will weave its way into the next film as well). And will Peter's missing (dead?) parents figure into the story at some point?

But with all that is wrong with the movie, they do get the important things right, namely the casting. Any doubts that no one could play Peter Parker after Maguire will be laid to rest after seeing Andrew Garfield's performance. He's perfect with what he's given, he plays the tortured soul extremely well, he looks fantastic in the suit, but I just wish they'd stuck to the character of the comics and let Peter/Spidey lighten up a bit. The comic character is well-known for his wisecracks while battling his foes, and there is none of that humor in this role. This isn't The Dark Knight! If the series is going to be successful, it really needs more humor. About the only times the film did lighten up was when Peter interacted with Gwen Stacy, the perfectly cast Emma Stone. Stone can do no wrong, and she has great chemistry with Garfield (better than anything Maguire and Dunst had) which brings a nice playfulness to their scenes together. Sally Field doesn't get to do much as Aunt May, but neither did Rosemary Harris in the first movie. Hopefully she'll get an expanded role in the next movie and get to do more than fret about Peter being out late at night. Martin Sheen and Denis Leary also give solid performances, but, well … don't count on seeing them in future entries in the series.

The film's biggest drawback is director Webb (500 Days of Summer), who has never helmed a film of this scope, and a script that seems cobbled together, passed from one hand to another, resulting in the tonal shifts that just throw the film into chaos. The effects, however (save for The Lizard) are spectacular and the scenes of Spidey swooping through the skyscraper canyons of New York City give you quite a rush (and there is a great 3D moment when Spider-Man literally flies off the screen just above the heads of the audience). I just wish that exuberance carried over into the rest of the movie. So is it worth seeing? I'd say yes, once in IMAX 3D. It's certainly not the worst superhero movie ever made, but it should have and could have been a lot better. At least it has probably the best Stan Lee cameo to date! And if you're one of those who sits through the credits for the sequel tease, you won't have to wait all the way to the end.