Tuesday, July 24, 2012

REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises

I know it's not nearly as dramatic a title, but for all intents and purposes, Christopher Nolan's third and final Batman movie really ought to be called "Batman Comes Full Circle."

I saw the new film as part of an IMAX marathon, and that was the ideal way to do so. This movie doesn't so much continue the story of the second movie, The Dark Knight, as it does continue the story started in Batman Begins. I won't talk much about the plot, except to say that our brooding hero finds he must go back to his roots to defeat his new enemy - whether he wants to or not.

The movie doesn't quite equal the second film, which was really a crime story in which the hero happens to wear a cape and a cowl. The Dark Knight Rises plumbs more fantastical depths, and is arguably the most comic-book like of the trilogy. Everything here is played on a grand scale, with much of Gotham City (now a cross between New York and Pittsburgh) being physically destroyed. And there's a host of new characters too; the movie makes for a mini-reunion of the cast of Inception, with the addition of Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Occasionally, the sheer size of everything bogs the picture down just a little. Clocking in at nearly three hours, The Dark Knight Rises could stand some tightening. I could have stood less of the antagonistic police officer played by Matthew Modine, and the romance between Bruce Wayne and Cotillard's character feels forced.

That said, the strengths of the picture mitigate its flaws. It may not have the galvanizing force of a single performance like Heath Ledger's, but more so than any of the previous movies, The Dark Knight Rises gains strength from the ensemble. Bale gets to plumb new emotional depths; this is his best performance in the trilogy. Hardy's physical transformation is formidable, and Michael Caine is actually heartbreaking. So, too, in a different style, is Anne Hathaway, who steals scenes almost as easily as her character steals jewels.

Another star is Nolan's IMAX cameras. Whereas about a third of The Dark Knight was shot in the large film format, about half of this movie is. It's especially effective in the aerial scenes; one shot in the airplane heist at the beginning made me say "Oh holy shit" - out loud.

But even that pales in comparison to the adrenaline rush that is the last 45 minutes. The third act is nothing short of breathtaking, not only visually but viscerally. The final shot reminded me of Inception. I won't say how. There is no spinning top on screen, but my heard certainly was spinning too - and, like the top, I could barely keep my balance.


Friday, July 20, 2012

After Aurora, TDKR hits even harder

I fully expected to feel rattled today. But I thought Batman and company would do the rattling - not James Holmes.

Very early Friday morning, I was driving home from Columbus where I saw an IMAX screening of The Dark Knight Rises. Then I noticed my iPhone started to flash with news alerts at about 3:30 a.m. "What could be setting off news alerts at this hour?" I wondered.

When I stopped to grab something to eat, I very quickly found out. More than a dozen people had been shot dead, and dozens more wounded, at a screening of the movie I had just seen - a movie with apocalyptic images that were still tumbling in my mind. Soon, images of another kind of apoplyptic scenee flashed across my mind's eye - and what scared me was they weren't entirely different from what I had seen onscreen.

"What has become of us?" I wondered. And that's the question we really should be asking ourselves. I have strong feelings on gun control, but I won't go into that here. Perhaps more gun laws would have helped those people in Aurora. Perhaps they would not have. But now we'll never know.

What we might be able to find out, however, is exactly why our society has become so frighteningly aggressive and divisive. And one place to look for some insight is on the movie screen, where The Dark Knight Rises is  playing.

That may sound facile, but I don't mean to suggest that The Dark Knight Rises answers all the questions flying through our heads. No movie could. But I find it ironic that some people have suggested suspending screenings the new Batman movie, at least for a little while, either to prevent copycat crimes or as a gesture of support for the victims.

Both concerns are legitimate, but both are misplaced. The people who are suffering in Aurora will still be suffering, whether Warner Bros. pulls the movie from theaters or not. The president has ordered flags to fly at half staff for a few days - that's a very visible show of support for the victims and their loved ones - far more visible than suspending the movie, however, temporarily, would be. And as we have seen all too often, legislation or other forms of control can do little to suppress determined madness.

One reason this tragedy resonates so strongly is its very setting. Many of us go to the movies to get away from reality for a couple of hours. Then, suddenly, here comes James Holmes and his reality crashing into the theater and leaving behind pools of blood. So much for entertainment.

And yet the movie can still do some good. The Batman movies directed and co-written by Christopher Nolan, have always been more than "just fun." They're meditations on what drives people's souls to become corrupt. The new movie, in particular, takes a good hard look at what drives society to do terrible things on a grand scale. And The Dark Knight Rises also provides some insight into how we can counter that.

Maybe we can't put on a cape and a cowl and jet around in a plane outfitted with machine guns. But we might be able to see how best to get back up when we fall.

I'm not going to tell what I think the movie says about our society. Everyone will have their own interpretation. But The Dark Knight Rises isn't only for those who "just want to be entertained!"  It's fine for a movie to be fun. Bit the best movies do more than that. They often hold up a mirror to who we are - and maybe after we look at the screen, we should consider that mirror, while we also think of all those who are hurting.

Up until July 21, The Dark Knight Rises was the most anticipated film of the year. Now, it is arguably the most important.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Franchise Flashback: Alien-Prometheus

This post inaugurates a new feature in which I will look back at previous movies in a franchise as the occasion warrants. With Prometheus still fresh in memory, I thought it would be fun to look back at the Alien films.

Alien (1979): Well, what else is there to say, really? I honestly can't think of another truly shocking scare that, since 1979, has entered the zeitgeist the way the chest-burster scene has. Regarding the special edition, I find it and the theatrical cut about a wash. The demise of the Dallas scene is a fascinating addition, but it's not absolutely essential. GRADE: A+

Aliens (1986): Still my favorite of the series, simply because I like action films better than horror films, and that's what the difference is in the first two films when you get down to it. The special edition is the superior cut; Cameron cut back too far when he deleted the references to Ripley's daughter, which gives her scenes with Newt more pathos. However, I would have still left the initial look at LV-426 on the cutting room floor - it diminishes the introduction of Newt. Either way, this still gets my vote as James Cameron's best film. GRADE: A+

Alien 3: Yeah, the third film is overly murky and logic gaps abound. You really expect us to believe the Alien queen laid an egg during the brief time it was on the Sulaco? Whatever. All that said, I find the film underrated, in both its theatrical cut and its more fleshed-out expanded edition. Neither version is what David Fincher really wanted, but it's a fascinating glimpse of the director forming his style, and the ending packs a wallop. GRADE: B+

Alien Resurrection: On sheer visual style alone, I have to recommend the movie. It's full of many imaginative visual quirks that are obviously from Jean-Pierre Jeunat. the director of Delicatessan and The City of Lost Children and, later, Amelie. I also admire Sigourney Weaver's half-human/half-alien performance. But the scares are more based on gross-out than suspense, and the ending (one of many scripted) does not work at all. GRADE: B-

Prometheus: Still my choice for the best film of this year. Read my full review here.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man

J. Jonah Jameson was right. That wall crawler is a thief after all.

At least, The Amazing Spider-Man is. This uninspired movie has robbed a once-stellar franchise of its goodwill. This is the biggest disappointment of the year.

Like many people, I was puzzled by Sony's decision to restart the franchise. After all, the first Spider-Man movie is only 10 years old, and doesn't everyone already know the origin? Sure, the marketing folks may say this new movie is "the untold story," but it's bait without the switch. This movie doesn't rebuild a franchise from the ground up, the way Batman Begins did. It merely slaps on a new coat of paint. There's not much imagination in this reimagining.

I wanted to give the new movie a chance. I loved the previous film by director Marc Webb, 500 Days of Summer. But showing visual flair in an indie romantic comedy is a far cry from directing a tentpole action movie. Webb pulls off a few decent action moments, but the director is clearly out of his depth, right down to the use of 3D. Even though The Amazing Spider-Man was shot in 3D, Webb barely makes use of it outside of the action scenes. I took my glasses off a few times and found the picture to be hardly blurred at all. And even in the action scenes, the editing is too choppy. Shots in 3D movies need to be allowed to linger for the effect to register. Even Michael Bay got this right in the third Transformers movie. Webb doesn't.

An even bigger problem is the slapdash script, credited to James Vanderbilt (Zodiac), Alvin Sargent (Spider-Man 2) and Steve Kloves (most of the Harry Potter films). All three writers have done much better work. Here, the screenplay huffs and puffs, trying to add layers to Peter Parker's backstory that add up to nothing, and futzing the logic with Spidey's powers, just so we can get cheap gags like computer keys coming off in his hands. The villain the Lizard (Rhys Ifans) is all unrealized potential, with half-baked attempts to make him both bad and good.

The saving grace of the film is most of the cast, especially the two leads. Andrew Garfield plays Peter Parker more as sullen outcast than geeky nerd, but the chip on his shoulder gives the role gravitas. Emma Stone is typically delightful as his paramour Gwen Stacy. I liked the two of them so much, I would rather have seen Webb direct them in a romantic comedy.

But affecting as they are, even Garfield and Stone never manage an iconic moment like Maguire and Dunst's upside-down kiss. Say what you will about the mess that was Spider-Man 3, its emotional core still came througth. I'd much rather watch it again than a perfunctory movie like The Amazing Spider-Man. Never mind what the studio says, this isn't so much a reboot as it is a refinancing of Sony Pictures' coffers.