Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan's name is synonymous with great film-making at this point in his career. His last effort, Inception, was a terrific piece of art that thrilled audiences with intense action as well as challenged them intellectually with his thought-provoking narrative. However, he is best known for his contributions to the Batman franchise, which cannot be undervalued. Before his first entry in the series, Batman Begins, the caped crusader was in a very bad place with the movie-going public. Batman Forever and Batman and Robin had tarnished the Dark Knight's reputation so badly there were some who thought he might never properly resurface. Thanks to Nolan's handy-work, Batman not only made a stellar comeback, but he is now a part of one of the greatest trilogies of all time. Christopher Nolan is famous for concentrating on one project at a time, and for a while it wasn't clear whether he would return to conclude his trilogy. Thank goodness he did.

The Dark Knight Rises is easily the most complex blockbuster we've seen all year. Nolan is a master at weaving together complicated storylines in such a way that even casual film fans can keep up. In this film, Batman is facing an eight year hiatus from patrolling the Gotham streets, thanks to laws passed in the wake of Harvey Dent's death keeping criminals from being granted parole. However, the citizens of Gotham have no idea the circumstances behind Dent's death, believing Batman to have murdered the once "White Knight" in cold blood. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is a secretive recluse, his health and physical fitness deteriorating from years of inactivity, not to mention the effect of the many injuries he'd sustained while cleaning up the streets of Gotham. He is called out of retirement, however, as a new evil rises from where it's been buried. Led by the menacing terrorist Bane, a new evil has come to destroy the city and fulfill the aim of "The League of Shadows". That's as far as I'd like to go in order to avoid spoilers, but the narrative really kicks into another gear once Bane reaches Gotham.

I was surprised to hear some critics judging this film as "not as good as The Dark Knight" as if it's in a competition. While I understand that it is a direct sequel and therefore invites the comparison, I think it's more complicated than that. For one thing, each film in this trilogy stands alone and has its own distinct themes and feel. I was actually glad that we didn't get "The Dark Knight Part 2" but rather we got a film that was clearly carrying on and ending the legend while also remaining self-contained and unique on its own. I love the aesthetic of The Dark Knight Rises and can appreciate it as a separate animal than its predecessors. To me, Batman Begins is an almost samurai-esque origin story, The Dark Knight is a gritty crime thriller, and The Dark Knight Rises is an all-out war movie. Bruce Wayne is at a different part of his life and faces different problems. He isn't in his prime physically, even going into situations expecting (and even hoping) he won't be able to escape. This movie is tremendous in the way it wraps up the trilogy while also telling a gripping, visually dazzling, and incredibly emotional story of its own. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and, while this may be controversial, I think this is the best film in the trilogy.

The acting across the board is top-notch. Christian Bale has his best performance to date as Bruce Wayne/Batman, perfectly portraying his inner demons as well as his emerging altruistic tendencies. Tom Hardy is immensely intimidating as the hulking Bane, acting more effectively with his eyes and body language than most actors do without a mask that obscures half their face (by the way, I really didn't mind his voice). Most surprising is Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, who I was most skeptical about. She turns in an impressive performance selling the audience on the conflict of the character and the physicality of the role. I could go on and on, as each actor brought something different to the table. Make sure to keep an eye out for the occasional cameo from returning characters to the series as well.

This film is dark, especially wherever Bane is. I didn't think they could get much darker than the previous film, but the brutality of some of the violence and the complete breakdown of order portrayed on screen can be difficult for some viewers to witness. Please do not bring young children to this movie. No little kid should have to see some of the ruthless acts of Bane and his henchmen particularly where the Dark Knight himself may or may not be involved.

As is common for Christopher Nolan's films, this is a densely packed screenplay that works on multiple levels. Even the title of the film has nuances that can be revisited and further examined. The cinematography is astounding and the visual effects groundbreaking, particularly the explosive opening. If you can, I definitely recommend seeing this film in an IMAX theater. More than an hour of this movie was filmed in the IMAX format, which makes the quality of the picture absolutely beautiful to watch. Do yourself a favor and check it out on the extra large screen. I absolutely loved this film. It's a thrilling and satisfying ending to this fantastic trilogy. I am definitely planning on seeing this movie again in theaters and I give The Dark Knight Rises a strong four stars.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language.

Friday, July 20, 2012

People Like Us

I went into this movie expecting to see a well-written, well-acted drama. It has some great actors and actresses such as Chris Pine (Star Trek, Unstoppable), Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games, 30 Rock), and Olivia Wilde (Tron: Legacy, Cowboys and Aliens). I really didn't think I had anything to worry about. The movie opens with Sam (Pine) and Jon Favreau (who never returns) discussing some needlessly complicated problem which is supposed to set up the fact that Sam is in dire need of $80,000 which he has somehow kept secret from his girlfriend, Hannah (Wilde). The cat is out of the bag shortly after Sam is summoned to his childhood home to attend the funeral of his estranged father, which he manages to weasel out of. This is to the great chagrin of his mother, played by Michelle Pfieffer doing all she can not to look glamorous. Sam's only real interest in returning is to hear the reading of his father's will, hoping to be left enough money to at least put a dent in his mountainous dept. To make matters even more complicated, however, his father left $150,000 to a struggling single mom named Frankie (Banks), who just happens to be Sam's half sister.

The story then becomes an escalation of awkward moments as Sam gets to know Frankie out of some bizarre curiosity, all the while harboring a secret that if divulged could... end the movie an hour early. The performances in this film were more-or-less up to par, however there were some aspects of the story that could have been excised to better serve the flow of the narrative. The entire sub-plot (if you can call it that) of the $80,000 dept really goes nowhere and is way too convoluted not to be cut.

Olivia Wilde puts in a great performance, but is also terribly under-utilized. I felt I could have connected with Sam's character better if I could have seen more interplay with Hannah. Chris Pine, whom I normally enjoy, did a decent job, but also became such a strange amalgamation of sympathetic and rebellious that it was hard to relate to. The best performance was from Elizabeth Banks, as her character was easy to understand and root for. She had some pretty funny lines but also sold the emotional struggle she was constantly subjected to as a single parent. My least favorite performance was definitely the annoying eleven year old kid who constantly causes destruction of school property, tortures his hard-working single mother (her being my favorite character didn't exactly help his case), eventually gets expelled, and the screenwriter still expects us to like him just because he somehow kindles a friendship with Sam...? I don't know, it just seems like he never gets any better even after Sam befriends him. He still makes life unnecessarily difficult for his mother and doesn't make any progress with his surprisingly unhelpful therapist.

So many things just didn't click with me. The final scene of the movie is clearly supposed to be touching, but the way Pine and Banks play it makes it feel almost like a Lifetime original movie. Perhaps it was the score that didn't connect with me, but something about the film just didn't work for some reason. Lara will probably be angry if she ever reads this review, but there you go. For what it's worth, I didn't dislike the move per se. I just didn't end up liking it as much as I was expecting, which instantly makes it a disappointment. Still, I'm giving "People Like Us" two and a half stars.

PEOPLE LIKE US is rated PG-13 for language, some drug use and brief sexuality.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

Ten years... it's definitely rare for a film franchise as large (not to mention as profitable) as the Spider-Man series to be re-booted in such a short period of time. The 2002 version was not only a box-office sensation, but it was a critically acclaimed film as well. That movie as well as its sequels are still fresh in most people's minds, so the idea of starting the origin story over again came as a surprise to most fans. Luckily, the newest incarnation of the web-slinger's back-story is not only entertaining, but manages to explore new territory as well.

The "untold story" featured here is that of Peter Parker's parents. We all know that Peter lives with his aunt and uncle, but this movie goes a little further into explaining how and why. It's nearly impossible not to compare this to Sam Raimi's original, but there are pro's and con's to each. This one tells a similar story, but with notable differences. For one thing, our hero is played by a relatively new and very talented actor, Andrew Garfield. He does a terrific job with a part that will possibly always be associated with Tobey McGuire. In my opinion, Garfield's interpretation of the character is not only more relatable, but more fully depicts both the angst of the brooding Parker and the funny trash-talking Spider-Man. Another change is the love interest. Rather than Mary Jane Watson, we have Gwen Stacy, played by Emma Stone. Her family dynamic is a little more interesting and plays a further role in the plot, as her father is the police chief that leads the manhunt for Spider-Man.

A lot of the more familiar story beats are a necessary evil of following the source material, but one obvious improvement is in the visual effects department. Particularly when Spider-Man swings through the city, there is a physicality to his movements that completely sells the action (for instance, his webs actually connect to something rather than shooting off aimlessly into the sky). Not only that, but the new villain of the story is a marked improvement over the cartoonish Green Goblin from the original. The Lizard poses an actual threat to Spider-Man and actually has a connection to our hero that runs deeper than what is explored in this film.

Not everything in this movie is great. The final battle isn't quite as satisfying as what had been promised, some of the plot-points are intentionally left unanswered and the repeated aspects of the origin are a little hard to swallow, particularly in comparison to what came before. Despite its shortcomings, however, this is a fun and highly entertaining ride that should lead into even better sequels. I give "The Amazing Spider-Man" three stars.

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN is rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence.