Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Many comic book superheroes have become household names and cultural icons over the years, but very few have ever managed to rival the success of Batman. Created in 1939 by Bob Kane and an uncredited Bill Finger, Batman is arguably the most popular and culturally relevant superhero ever created. His popularity across the various forms of pop culture that have featured him has never waned in the seven decades since he debuted in the pages of Detective Comics #27.

Batman's appearances beyond the realm of comics haven't always worked out for the best, though. I'm specifically referring to the two films directed by Joel Schumacher. While Schumacher's Batman Forever has its defenders, Batman & Robin was critically savaged and is often derided for being so intolerably campy that it made the classic Batman TV show from the '60s look like a gritty drama. So negative was the reception for Schumacher's movies that the Batman movie franchise was killed dead for nearly a decade.

But all was not lost, as the franchise was revived and rebooted in 2005 by Christopher Nolan. Batman Begins firmly returned the cinematic Batman to the gritty realm he occupies in the comics, and it was a legitimately fantastic movie in its own right. But Nolan managed to surpass it three years later with The Dark Knight. One of the rare sequels that completely outdid its predecessor, The Dark Knight was so good that it became the first superhero movie to win an Academy Award for its acting and as of this writing is listed on IMDB.com as one of the top ten best movies ever made.

Flash forward to this summer and the release of Nolan's third and supposedly final Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises. Anticipation for the movie was at a fever pitch upon its release last weekend, and considering how awesome The Dark Knight was, the movie had a hell of an act to follow. So does Nolan's "Dark Knight Saga" end on a high note

Eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight, during which time Gotham City was finally able to free itself from the grip of organized crime thanks to legislation named for the late district attorney Harvey Dent. The murders Dent committed following his mental breakdown were swept under the rug, with Batman accepting the blame for both Dent's death and the crimes he committed so that the city would remember Dent as a hero.

Batman rode off into the sunset after that, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has spent those eight years practically becoming a hermit secluded away in his mansion on the outskirts of Gotham City. Though he gave up the mantle of "Batman" long ago, Bruce is drawn back to the cape and cowl upon the rise of a new threat in the form of Bane (Tom Hardy). A monstrous mercenary with ties to Ra's al Ghul and the League of Shadows, Bane arrives in dramatic fashion, wounding Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and staging a siege on Gotham's stock exchange.

Bane quickly assembles an army who begin to turn class warfare into traditional warfare pitting the working class against Gotham's more affluent citizens. He also surprisingly has a personal vendetta against Bruce, setting into motion a plan that leaves Wayne Enterprises facing bankruptcy and Bruce himself penniless. Bane even goes as far as to cripple Batman during a fight and leave him for dead in a hellish prison in the middle of nowhere.

With Batman out of the way, Bane quickly neutralizes much of the police department and completely conquers Gotham City by threatening to detonate a nuclear weapon if he is opposed. The government is unable to do anything about it, as any and all attempts to thwart Bane are met with abject failure. Faced with no other options, Batman must escape from his prison and ― with the help of cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and a brave young cop named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) ― get back on his feet so that Gotham City can be safe once again.

It's an odd coincidence that The Dark Knight Rises was released in the same summer as The Avengers. The anticipation for both movies had been building since 2008, and The Dark Knight Rises is still shaping up to be a huge blockbuster even in spite of that tragic shooting in Colorado. But comparing the two would be like comparing apples and oranges. One was a lighthearted adventure, while the other is a serious drama. But the one thing that they do have in common is that they're both not only great superhero movies, but downright amazing movies period. I've already had my say in regards to The Avengers, but on the topic of The Dark Knight Rises, I can honestly say that it's an absolutely tremendous movie and a near-perfect way to end the trilogy.

Working on the movie as both director and co-writer, Christopher Nolan has crafted what I can truly call one of the best movies I've seen in a long time. From his director's chair, Nolan shapes the movie into a grand epic that concludes the saga on a high note. Though the movie runs two hours and 45 minutes, it never drags or feels overly long. Nolan tells the story in such a way that we the viewer stayed glued to the screen from beginning to end. It helps that he's working with Hans Zimmer's fantastic score and Wally Pfister's absolutely gorgeous cinematography, but Nolan probably could have made a great movie with lesser tools at his disposal.

The script, written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, is also very good, but has its share of flaws. Really, the only problems whatsoever I have with The Dark Knight Rises are due to its script. The plot feels very rushed, like they're trying to fit in as much story as possible into the movie without making sure it flowed smoothly. Christopher, as director, did a great job trying to make sure it didn't drag but it still felt way too murky for its own good. We're told that five months have passed after Bane conquers Gotham City, but as fast as the story moves, it could have been five weeks for all we know. Would it have been so hard for the Nolans to take their time with the pacing? They had nearly three hours to work with, so it's not like they had to worry about a time issue.

But outside of that, practically everything the Nolans have written is gold. They actually make a bold move in writing not a Batman movie, but a Bruce Wayne movie. The full Batman costume doesn't even appear until nearly an hour into the movie. Instead, the Nolans delve into Bruce's psyche, to show just how his adventures as Batman would impact his sanity. So devoted to being Batman is their version of Bruce that when he gives up the cape and cowl, he doesn't know how to be Bruce Wayne. He sequesters himself away in the darkest part of Wayne Manor, so hidden from the world that even the people that work for him barely even know what he looks like. He's become almost as much a myth as Batman.

But despite his hermit-like existence and the guilt and heartache that are eating him alive, Bruce still longs to be Batman. It's who he is; that's all he is. Many comic book writers over the years have painted Batman as being the real person and Bruce Wayne as the disguise he wears, but I really got the feeling that the Nolans decided to take it one step further with a story that, for all intents and purposes, sets up that without Batman there's no Bruce Wayne either. I actually felt it was quite poetic, in that Bruce is so driven, so compelled into heroism that he practically can't function without the cape and cowl.

And since most other critics and reviewers have brought it up, I guess I'll have to mention it too. Even though the movie was supposedly written and in production long before the whole "Occupy Wall Street" movement took off last year, there's definitely a similar vibe to the movie. Of course, none of the Occupiers ever took over a city with a nuclear bomb, but Bane's class warfare rhetoric that he uses to stir Gotham City into a frenzy definitely feels like what would have happened if the Occupiers branched out into terrorism. It's much less over-the-top with Catwoman's "there's a storm coming" monologue and her general disdain for the wealthy, but the whole thing is there whether the Nolans intended for it to be or not.

But let's move along to the superb group of actors assembled. Returning to the role of the titular Dark Knight for the third and final time is Christian Bale, who once again knocks it out of the park with his performance. As good as his performances in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were, I think he actually managed to trump them with this movie. Bale brings a lot of credibility and emotion to the role, making you forget that you're watching just an actor playing a character. He wholly becomes the character, making Bruce Wayne just as fascinating to watch as his costumed alter ego. The movies made by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher movies had a hard time balancing that, but Bale succeeds and makes this movie (and the two prior entries in the trilogy) better for it.

From our protagonist we move onward to the movie's primary "big bad," as played by Tom Hardy. Hardy casts an intimidating presence, giving Bane an air of menace and frightening determination with every move he makes. He plays Bane as cold, calculating, and intelligent yet monstrous as well. It's thankfully much closer to his character's comic book counterpart than Jeep Swenson's grunting hulk from Batman & Robin. Hardy makes for both a charismatic and scary villain that really suits the character.

Perhaps the most controversial bit of casting was Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. People thought that she wouldn't be right for the role, that she'd never be able to match any other incarnation of Selina Kyle. This could be due in part to Hathaway's past roles in teen-themed fluff like The Princess Bride and Ella Enchanted, or perhaps it was due to the popularity of Michelle Pfeiffer's portrayal of Catwoman in Batman Returns. But those doubters were proven wrong, because Hathaway's performance is fantastic. She approaches Catwoman with the perfect combination of self-assurance and sex appeal, making the character the alluring figure she needs to be. Hathaway makes it very easy to see why Batman would be drawn to Catwoman, as she and Bale's playful, flirtatious chemistry together effortlessly duplicates Batman and Catwoman's fabled relationship in the source material.

Unfortunately, because the Bane character takes up so much of the movie's spotlight, Hathaway doesn't get as much time to shine as she probably should have. She does have some fantastic moments, but the role doesn't feel quite as big as it deserves. Had the role been a bit beefier, I'd honestly have no problem calling Hathaway's performance the absolute definitive live-action portrayal of Catwoman. Hathaway totally nails it, doing the very best she can to steal the movie and very nearly doing so.

The members of the supporting cast also turn in some fine performances despite appearing in smaller roles. Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman are great as always, while Marion Cotillard is okay yet not quite memorable. Cotillard appears as a Wayne Enterprises executive who plays a pivotal role during the climax, but until then, she barely has anything to do. This lack of meaningful screen time unfortunately means less time for Cotillard to make an impression. She's decent enough, though, but I would have

But my favorite performances among the supporting cast come from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Caine. Gordon-Levitt plays his role with aplomb, injecting his character with a necessary intelligence, bravery, and idealism. His performance is captivating enough that it really felt like Gordon-Levitt was in a competition with Hathaway to see who could get the audience to like them the most.

My personal favorite performance in the movie, however, is Caine's. Caine's performance is perfect, exemplifying everything that Alfred is and should be. He's not just a butler, but a father figure for Bruce, and Caine approaches Alfred in this movie with all the heartache and fear of a father who is watching his son fight and risk dying for a cause bigger than both of them. It's an emotional, gripping, utterly heartbreaking performance that, for all the efforts of Bale, Hardy, Hathaway, and Gordon-Levitt, truly does steal the show. It's just a shame that Caine disappears for much of the movie after the first act, because I wanted to see more of him.

The Dark Knight Rises isn't the perfect Batman movie, but I'd still call it one of the best ever. Yeah, it's got a couple of flaws, but it's still fantastic. And while the ending will more than likely leave you hoping for a fourth "Dark Knight" adventure, the movie still brings Nolan's saga to a satisfying conclusion. I'm sad to see the franchise face another reboot a few years down the road, I hope whomever is placed in charge can fill the huge shoes that Nolan, Bale, and crew are leaving behind. But either way, I can't wait to see where Batman goes from here.

Final Rating: ****

Friday, July 13, 2012

Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

Slasher movie fans have long sang the praises of Black Christmas and Halloween as being the creators of slasher movies as we know them. But if they created the game, it was Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th that established the game's rules. Released in the summer of 1980 to cash in on the popularity of Halloween, Friday the 13th was surprisingly successful and launched a million knockoffs and wannabes that allowed slasher movies to dominate the horror genre during the '80s. And naturally, it got its own sequel as well. And as it would turn out, Friday the 13th Part 2 would not only be the first in a long line of sequels, but the one that would serve as the proper introduction to one of the horror genre's most enduring modern monsters.

Five years have passed since the events of the first movie, and the Camp Crystal Lake massacre ― and the mysterious disappearance of its sole survivor not long thereafter ― have become a local campfire legend. The legend also continues that the thought-dead Jason Voorhees survived his childhood drowning and watched as his psychotic mother's rampage was brought to a violent end, vowing bloody vengeance against anyone who would dare step foot in the area surrounding the lake. But those are just campfire stories, right?

They hopefully are, as Paul Holt (John Furey) has opened a new lakefront training lodge for potential camp counselors. The wannabe counselors are all set for a little summer fun, while Paul's hoping a little private time with his girlfriend Ginny (Amy Steel). But little does he know that unfortunately, some campfire legends are true. Jason (Steve Daskawisz) is very much alive and well, and he's got time (and teenagers) to kill.

Friday the 13th Part 2 came very early in the rise of slasher movies, and you can just vaguely make out the outline of the training wheels that both the franchise and the genre's basic formula were wearing at the time. Though many of the tropes and clich├ęs commonly associated with the franchise and slasher movies in general are abundant, the movie never really hits a real stride until near the end. It's not a bad entry in the series by any means, but I just don't think it's one of the strongest either.

At the helm of this particular adventure is director Steve Miner, who would go on to direct not only the third Friday the 13th movie, but Halloween H20 as well. All he needs is a Nightmare on Elm Street movie and he's got the slasher hat trick. Miner's work here is hit or miss, as there are more than a few instances where it feels like he's just doing a half-assed remake of the first movie. The sequel was released barely a year after its predecessor, rushed to theaters in an attempt to strike while the iron was hot. Miner probably didn't have a lot of time to get fancy and creative, so I guess he figured he wouldn't try fixing what apparently wasn't broken.

But Miner does manage to scrounge up some really good moments. Some of the scares in the movie are very effective, and he builds some genuine suspense, especially during the last twenty minutes. There's flashes of brilliance among the disappointing parts, flashes that are good enough to make the movie more enjoyable than it probably should have been.

I usually follow my critique of the direction with my opinions regarding the script. But is there any reason to talk about it? The movie's not some post-modern satire like Scream or The Cabin in the Woods, so it's not like the writing will be Hemmingway. It's an '80s slasher movie; the script only exists to give the characters something to do so they aren't just standing around waiting for Jason to kill them.

Like I said about the direction, writer Ron Kurz seems to have borrowed heavily from the original Friday the 13th. He doesn't outright rip it off, but you can definitely see he's trying to replicate the formula at the very least. He shakes things up in a few places, like the scene where some of the characters actually leave the camp and head to the local bar for the rest of the movie. That's a heck of a way to thin out some of the characters without having to come up with death scenes.

I also enjoyed that Kurz included some characters that are actually likable. They aren't all that way, since there has to be some victims who you'll want to see Jason get his hands on. But there are multiple characters that you'll actually see yourself feeling bad for when they meet their inevitable and grisly demise.

It helps that there are a few strong performances among the cast too. Slasher movies aren't exactly known for their award-caliber acting, but this particular movie has some decent work in front of the camera. The strongest of them is Amy Steel, who plays the movie's resident "final girl." Steel plays the character as all "final girls" worth their salt should; she's vulnerable but tough, scared but smart. Steel makes her character not only charming but sympathetic and believable as well. While you might find yourself rooting for Jason more and more over the course of the dozen or so movies in this franchise, Steel's performance is so good that you'll find yourself rooting for her for a change.

And I should also highlight Steve Daskawisz, the man playing the movie's venerable killer. Though Warrington Gillette gets the credit for playing Jason despite appearing in only one scene, it was Daskawisz underneath that hood for much of the movie. (Yes, I said "hood." There's no iconic hockey mask here, only a sack that looks like it was stolen from the set of The Town That Dreaded Sundown.) Daskawisz is very good as Jason, giving him a sense of menace that Jason needs to be truly scary. He really makes you believe that he's going to find you and kill you and there's nothing you can do about it.

Friday the 13th Part 2 has long been one of the more popular sequels in the series. I don't know if I would call it one of mine, but I can see why it has its fans. It's a flawed movie, but it has some good scares and a talented heroine and villain. And it's the one that made Jason a true star to boot. So I'm going to give the movie three stars on the usual scale. And a word of warning: stay away from your local summer camp. Considering what today is, you never know who you could run into.

Final Rating: ***

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

While Marvel Studios may have seen an unbelievable amount of success with The Avengers a few months ago, Marvel Comics has always been about Spider-Man. The red-and-blue webslinger has been Marvel's de facto mascot for decades, and as such has appeared in a ton of different places. Cartoons, TV shows, a Broadway musical, all the merchandise you could possibly think of... Spider-Man's been there, done that.

In recent years, though, Spidey's most well-known appearances outside of comic books have been in Sam Raimi's trilogy of movies starring Tobey Maguire. But after the lukewarm fan response to Spider-Man 3 and creative differences between Raimi and Sony Pictures, the fourth entry in the series was cancelled before it got past the writing stage. Rather than continue developing Spider-Man 4 without Raimi, Sony chose to reboot the franchise and wipe the slate clean with a new take on Spidey's origins. And while the resulting reboot ― drawing its name from Marvel's flagship Amazing Spider-Man comic ― seemingly got lost in the comic-inspired summer blockbuster shuffle thanks to the mega-huge releases of The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, this new Spider-Man movie is still worth seeing.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) has spent much of his young life wondering about secrets. The biggest one of them all is why his parents chose to leave him to live with his aunt May (Sally Field) and uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) when he was only four years old with nary a word as to why. And after their death in a mysterious plane crash, he long believed the answer would forever escape him.

But when Peter discovers his father's briefcase, he finds a stack of hidden documents that lead him to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a biologist working on cross-species genetics at the pharmaceutical company Oscorp. Peter sneaks into Dr. Connors's laboratory during an internship tour and discovers a room where genetically-modified spiders are spinning webs constructed of extremely durable cables. One of these spiders sneaks into Peter's clothes and bites him, bestowing upon him heightened agility and reflexes, enhanced strength, and a sixth sense that alerts him to danger.

As he learns the ins and outs of his new abilities, Peter approaches Dr. Connors with his father's paperwork. Dr. Connors, impressed by how well Peter comprehends the complexities of all the scientific jargon written in these papers, explains that he and Peter's father were working on a serum that would allow amputees to regenerate their missing limbs similar to lizards. And with Peter helping with some of the math, Dr. Connors has come closer than ever to perfecting his serum.

Unfortunately, Peter's dealings with Dr. Connors cause him to forget a few things around the house and lead to an argument with Uncle Ben. Peter storms out of the house, but when he tries to follow him and diffuse the situation, Ben is shot and killed by a guy holding up a convenience store. A heartbroken Peter hits the streets looking for the killer himself, using his abilities to capture muggers and carjackers as he searches for his uncle's murderer.

Donning a red-and-blue costume and mask inspired by Mexican wrestlers, Peter's vigilante antics make him a folk hero known only as "Spider-Man." But since vigilantism is technically illegal, it's also made Peter a target of the New York Police Department. The fact that the NYPD's captain, George Stacy (Denis Leary), is leading the manhunt for Spider-Man makes it especially rough on Peter, primarily due to his blossoming courtship with Captain Stacy's daughter Gwen (Emma Stone).

Things are going to get a lot worse for Peter, however. Dr. Connors, pressured by his superiors at Oscorp to rush human testing on his regenerative serum or face losing his job, injects himself with the formula. It is an initial success, as he regrows his previously missing arm. It almost immediately goes south, though, as it mutates him into a lizard-like beast. His sanity takes a drastic downturn as well, leading Dr. Connors to conclude that he should expose all of New York City to the serum. Realizing that the lizard creature he's been fighting is Dr. Connors and racked with guilt that his input led to this problem, Peter takes it upon himself to save the day even as the NYPD tries to bring him in.

The Amazing Spider-Man marks the third and final Marvel movie to be released this year, following behind Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and the money-making juggernaut that was The Avengers. It isn't the best of the three, but I honestly cannot call it the worst either. The Amazing Spider-Man is genuinely fun, full of moments that are a real treat to behold. The first two chapters of Raimi's Spidey trilogy might be held in higher regard, but this movie can easily stand alone as something good.

Helming the relaunch of the franchise is director Mark Webb, whose name could only be more appropriate if it were "Peter Parker" or "Stan Lee." Webb's direction is fantastic, excellently maintaining a sense of adventure through the whole movie. There's also a certain level of curiosity, in that you know Uncle Ben is doomed and that Spider-Man will save the day at the end, but Webb sucks you in and makes you want to see what happens next. It helps that Webb is armed with a talented cast and amazing special effects, both of which really boost the movie.

I also have to admit that I really liked how Webb utilized the movie's 3D effects. While there are moments where the movie would have worked just well in 2D, Webb still utilizes the 3D in a way that makes the extra charge on the ticket worth it. It's especially evident during the first-person sequences where Spider-Man leaps from rooftop to rooftop. The 3D makes these bits look even cooler than they would have in 2D, to the point that it probably would have blown my mind if I'd seen it in IMAX.

Unfortunately, as good as the direction and the 3D are, I thought the script was just kinda mediocre. Written by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves, the script suffers from muddled storytelling and a pretty big plot hole. The whole "Spider-Man's father kept some dark secrets" angle becomes a complete non-factor almost immediately and isn't mentioned again until the extra scene partway through the end credits. Did the writers just forget about it? Were those scenes cut out of the movie during the editing process? If you're not going to do anything with it, why even bring it up at all? It's like they came up with it and forgot about it twenty pages into the script, and by the time they remembered it, they figured they'd just save the answers for the sequel.

But at least Vanderbilt, Sargent, and Kloves managed to do right by the characters. They not only keep them true to their comic book counterparts while doing something new with them, but Vanderbilt, Sargent, and Kloves make them all enjoyable in their own ways. And considering how great a job the cast does, it's just icing on the cake.

And let's talk about the cast for a second while we're at it. Playing the lead role is Andrew Garfield, who at 28 years old doesn't really look like a believable teenager. But age discrepancies aside, Garfield is very, very good as the titular superhero. He absolutely nails the part, playing Peter with the necessary pathos and giving Spidey a joking, smart-aleck attitude, both of which are needed to accurately play both facets of the character. Garfield was a great choice for the movie, and I'm looking forward to seeing him in future sequels.

I can say the same for Emma Stone who I found to be quite charming and sweet as Gwen Stacy. Stone plays Gwen with a warmth that makes it easy to understand why Peter would fall for her in the first place. She and Garfield have a believable chemistry together, and their scenes have a likable cuteness thanks to how well they play their roles.

Rhys Ifans also puts forth a great performance as the movie's resident villain. Ifans approaches the part differently than how others have played comic book supervillains, giving Dr. Connors a real "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" vibe. He knows that he's a monster, but is too mentally unstable to stop himself. I actually felt that Ifans's performance was quite captivating; While he might not have the same menace as Heath Ledger's Joker or the scenery-chewing over-the-top silliness of Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin, Ifans still plays a damn fine villain.

And I really don't have anything bad to say about the rest of the supporting cast either. Denis Leary is a lot of fun in his role, while Martin Sheen and Sally Field knock it out of the park. The roles of Uncle Ben and Aunt May are crucial to the Spider-Man mythos, and Sheen and Field absolutely nail it by making their characters feel real.

I know practically everyone who sees The Amazing Spider-Man has and will compare it to Raimi's trilogy. But I honestly don't think that's really fair to the crew that made this movie. It should be judged on its own merits, and by doing so, one might be pleasantly surprised by how well it turned out. Calling the movie perfect would be a lie, but it's still a fine, exciting piece of entertainment that I enjoyed a lot. Now if they can just sort out all of the legal issues and get Spider-Man in The Avengers 2, we'll be set.

Final Rating: ***½