Review: “The Dark Knight Rises” (Spoiler Free)

Before I start this review, I just wanted to express my deepest sympathy for the victims of the theater shooting in Colorado over the weekend. It may almost seem like a cliche at this point, but, as someone who spends a lot of time in theaters, I can’t imagine what that must’ve been like.

Concerning “The Dark Knight Rises,” I went into the midnight showing trying to restrain my expectations. I think a lot of people went into this film expecting it to be better than 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” which really didn’t work out for them.

This film picks up 8 years after the events of its predecessor. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a bit of a recluse after hanging up his cowl. With Wayne out of the public eye, his butler Alfred (Michael Caine) remains his lone connection to the outside world. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is the “war hero” biding his time before the mayor forces him into retirement. To make a long story short, Gotham is (mostly) crime-free and boring.

Enter Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked mercenary with devout followers who sets his sights on the destruction of Gotham. With the emergence of a new super-villain, Wayne feels the need to return to his crime-fighting ways.

The film returns with its amazing cast, but several key additions are brought in to tell a broader Batman tale. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a young cop named John Blake that Gordon takes under his wing. Marion Cotillard, in a slightly under-developed role, is Miranda Tate, a key board member at Wayne Enterprises. Also joining the cast is Anne Hathaway in a surprisingly great performance as Selina Kyle/Catwoman.

Given the casting list, great performances shouldn’t be too surprising. There is one scene with Cotillard near the end, though, that looks like high school theater class. I wish I could get more specific, but that would reveal some heavy spoilers.

I remember when “Batman Begins” first came out, one of the biggest complaints was that director Christopher Nolan had no idea how to shoot an action sequence. Two Batman films later, I’m happy to report that there are a couple of great fights in this film. One scene between Batman and Bane in the sewers is great because it says so much about the characters while still being a great fight sequence.

My favorite thing about “The Dark Knight Rises” is the story. The beginning feels like “The Dark Knight Returns” with Batman coming out of retirement. There are other references to comics as well, but the main thing here is just how ambitious the plot is. “The Avengers” was interesting because, among other reasons, it tried the unthinkable with assembling characters together. This film is groundbreaking in a different kind of way. The dreary atmosphere, the abandonment of all things good and the embrace of evil make this the darkest chapter in the trilogy.

Unfortunately, the plot is also where the film is the most vulnerable. Since the story is so vast, carrying across continents and shooting for such great heights, it also leaves more plot holes than previous installments. That “realism” everyone was going crazy about in 2008 is only a hollow shell here. I’m not saying “The Dark Knight” was perfect, but it hid its flaws better than this film.

The beginning and ending of the film is where people will divide over its quality. I think everyone agrees the middle is pretty great. The first hour is a little slower than your average man-in-tights flick, but it’s mainly due to so many new characters and that 8-year gap between films.

The ending, on the other hand, splits the audience because there are a few revelations that you will find either very satisfying or sloppy and unbelievable. I can’t really tell you which camp you’ll fall into, but I was pretty satisfied walking out of the theater.

It can’t be reiterated enough that this is not “The Dark Knight.” There is no Joker or Heath Ledger and lightning doesn’t always strike the same place twice. That being said, I think this fits very well within Christopher Nolan’s trilogy.

Grade: A –

Until next time, happy viewing.

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Batman Countdown: In Nolan We Trust

After the catastrophe that was “Batman and Robin,” Warner Bros. worked hard to find a way to reintroduce their beloved cash cow. At one point, there was a Batman/Superman film in the works starring Colin Farrell as the Caped Crusader and Jude Law as the Man of Steel.

“Batman Begins” (2005)

In 2005, director Christopher Nolan had only made three feature-length films, one of which being the extremely low-budget “Following.” Who knew he would set the benchmark for comic book filmmaking?

As common knowledge as it is today, Nolan had the daring idea to bring comics into the real world (or at least as close as possible). This would be the opposite approach of the cartoonish “Batman and Robin” and, overall, very different from just about every other comic book adaptation up to that point. There is still a certain level of suspension of disbelief required, but audiences didn’t have to deal with anything THAT ridiculous.

Christian Bale, somewhat similar to Nolan, was little-known to most Americans. At best, he was “that guy from ‘American Psycho.'” His performance is interesting because he does well with separating the two very different sides of Bruce Wayne. He plays Wayne the billionaire as a bit of a jerk, filled with arrogance. When he’s not in the public eye, though, Bruce Wayne’s true character is revealed.

Unlike, say Spider-man, Batman’s origins were fairly unknown to the general audience, so the unfolding of Bruce’s past endeared the character even more and allowed us to get the full picture. Honestly, the only real complaint I have with this film are the poorly executed action scenes. There are some days I might even prefer it to Nolan’s 2008 sequel.

With a nearly impeccable cast, compelling origin story and bold direction, “Batman Begins” pulls off a miraculous resurrection for the Batman franchise.

Best line: “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored, I can be destroyed, but as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.”

“The Dark Knight” (2008)

Sequels almost always disappoint. With the exception of a small handful of other comic sequels, “The Dark Knight” is pretty much the only one to break the mold.

The same cast from “Batman Begins” improves marginally by replacing Katie Holmes with Maggie Gyllenhaal. Adding onto this stellar group are Aaron Eckhart as District Attorney Harvey Dent and Heath Ledger as the Joker.

“The Dark Knight” was an evolutionary step in the comic book genre. Mixing iconic villains like the Joker with a classic gangster vibe produced a cultural phenomenon that broke box office records like they were nothing. It also established Christopher Nolan as one of the best working directors in the business.

Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker, becoming only the second person to do so. His death had a hand in both the box office take and cementing the film in history.

Tonight’s midnight premiere will tell whether Christopher Nolan can pull off another miracle for this Goliath of a franchise. Have you got your tickets for “The Dark Knight Rises?”

Happy (midnight) viewing.

Batman Countdown: 1989-1997

One day closer to “The Dark Knight Rises.” Time to talk about the most popular Batman films back when no one knew who Christopher Nolan was.

“Batman” (1989)

Although Superman got his own film in 1978, the superhero formula for film was still in its infancy back in 1989. “Batman” was kind of a bold pioneer for the genre, which is what made it so great when it turned out to be well done.

Director Tim Burton, coming off of “Beetlejuice,” controversially decided to cast Michael Keaton in the role of Bruce Wayne. Similar to Heath Ledger’s casting of Joker, critics were easily shut up after seeing the film.

Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker gave the film a sense of legitimacy. The veteran actor was able to capture both the viciousness of his character and his appreciation for laughter. Combining Burton’s dark tone with a healthy dose of comic book camp, “Batman” is easily the best of the 89-97 series. Too bad we’ll never see Billy Dee Williams as Two-Face.

Best line: “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”

“Batman Returns” (1992)

According to interviews, Warner Bros. really wanted Tim Burton to return for this Bat-sequel but he wasn’t interested. So, the execs told him he could make “a Tim Burton movie” instead of just “another Batman movie.”

Makes sense, because this film is pretty much an overkill on the dark tone most Burton films take. Some people like it, but I’m not the biggest fan of watching penguin people spit up black ink.

Other than Michael Keaton, who reprises his role as Bruce Wayne, most of the cast is brand new. With Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Penguin (Danny DeVito) and the evil Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), “Batman Returns” is at no loss for quality bad guys.

Although it’s a good movie (and I love Catwoman here), it really doesn’t have much to do with Batman. He’s in 3 of the first 30 minutes, which is weird considering its his franchise. Then again, it won’t be the only time that Batman sits in the background while villains get to have all the fun.\

Best line: (Catwoman executes series of flips, landing between Batman and Penguin) “Meow.” (Building behind her explodes)

“Batman Forever” (1995)

So long Tim Burton, hello Joel Schumacher. After studio execs deemed “Batman Returns” to be too dark, they hired Schumacher to return the series to a more kid-friendly environment.

If you watch the film knowing that it takes place within the world of a comic book, and not our world with its rules, then it’s a pretty good film. Realism is not even in this film’s dictionary.

Picking up the cape and cowl this time is Val Kilmer, who is surprisingly a really good combination of Wayne and Batman. Where “Batman Returns” had dark, grotesque villains, “Batman Forever” is more along the lines of a cartoon brought to life. There’s no human being more cartoonish than Jim Carrey as the Riddler. Also enrolling in the Over-the-Top School of Villainy is Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face.

What I really love about this film is that it actually gives Bruce Wayne something to do. The psychology of Batman is explored as he tries to deal with the guilt he feels over his parents’ death. It’s a dark side of the film that offsets the humor. I also enjoy seeing Gotham City in a more unique light. Burton’s films designed the city as a more gothic New York City, whereas this film has it looking like no other city in the world.

The film itself is a mixed bag, but “Batman Forever” is a worthy addition to the franchise (despite the guilty by association judgment it gets for leading to a certain other film).

I would also like to say that this film has some great scenes that the studio forced them to cut in order for it to be better for children. I’ve heard Schumacher has a director’s cut in mind that is about 35 minutes longer. Unfortunately, you can’t really count deleted scenes as part of the movie, so we’ll just chalk this up to the studios screwing over another film.

Best line: “Then it will happen this way. You make the kill, but your pain doesn’t die with Harvey, it grows. So you run out into the night to find another face, and another, and another, until one terrible morning you wake up and realize that revenge has become your whole life. And you won’t know why.”

Well, that’s it. There were definitely no other Batman movies after that. Huh? What do you mean Bat-nipples? Ok, fine.

“Batman & Robin” (1997)

Just like Tim Burton went overboard with the darkness in “Batman Returns,” Schumacher cranks up the camp and cheese to 11 in this franchise-killing installment.

George Clooney plays Bruce Wayne playing George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman takes Poison Ivy over the top and Alicia Silverstone tries to be Batgirl. What a combination.

Studios got a taste for the millions to be made off of toys and product placement from “Batman Forever,” so they pretty much forced Schumacher to make the most kid-friendly, toy-sellingest movie of all time. Although it’s a horrible, horrible film, the studios definitely got what they were looking for.

The interesting part is that the studios LOVED the dailies and were planning to let Schumacher make a fifth film called “Batman Triumphant” until critics destroyed “Batman and Robin.”

A fun game to play is Name One Thing About “Batman and Robin” You Actually Liked. So far, I can say I like the design of Robin’s suit at the beginning of the film (sans nipples). Unfaithful to the comics and a joke to the masses, “Batman and Robin” is one of the, if not THE, worst comic book films ever conceived.

Best line: “There is no defeat in death, Master Bruce. Victory comes in defending what we know is right while we still live.”

Tomorrow, it’ll be time to talk about Christopher Nolan and how he saved Batman from the dark corner “Batman and Robin” left him in.

Happy viewing.

Batman Countdown: Animated Films

So, I’m kind of a nerd. Kind of obvious from the whole movie blog thing, but I’m even moreso when it comes to my favorite comic book character, Batman. I grew up watching “Batman: The Animated Series” which originally ran from 1992-1995 and, to a lesser extent, “Batman Beyond” (1999-2001).

While I read some of the comics off and on, those cartoons were my source material of choice. So it only makes sense to start off my Batman countdown with my favorite animated films.

Not counting several Justice League films (all of which I would recommend if that’s your cup of tea), there have been a few animated films released in the last 20 years that I have enjoyed. These are great additions to the live action stories I’ll mention in later posts because they explore stories that would be too difficult to tell in a big Hollywood production. The average runtime is about 75 minutes, so it’s not much of a time commitment either.

So, without further ado…

“Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” (1993)

Before “Batman Begins,” there weren’t really any movies that told the story of Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman. While “Mask of the Phantasm” doesn’t show as much as “Begins” (as far as Bruce ordering the parts and such), we do get to see Bruce as a vigilante. There is also a strong theme surrounding the oath Bruce took after the death of his parents. We see the things he is forced to leave behind in order to don the cape and cowl and the inner turmoil he suffers because of it.

On top of this, the story sees a new vigilante that has come into town. One who is not afraid to break Batman’s one rule. Between the Phantasm taking out gangsters left and right and the story’s inclusion of the Joker, the film is pretty dark for an animated film. I consider “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” to be the best of the animated films for its action scenes and its development of the story and characters.

As for my other favorite among the animated films, that belongs to…

“Batman: Under the Red Hood” (2010)

As much as I have always enjoyed Batman cartoons (not to be confused with the animated films), they always seemed a little too safe for a Batman story. People rarely, if ever, die and there’s almost always a happy ending. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised with “Under the Red Hood.” It’s a great adventure for characters in the Batman universe and its more violent than probably any other of his animated films.

The film is basically centered around three individuals: Batman, Jason Todd (the 2nd Robin for those unfamiliar) and, of course, the Joker. Without spoiling too much of the film, its plot shares a few elements with “Mask of the Phantasm.” A newcomer to Gotham challenges the local crime syndicates and takes over the drug trade by killing off the competition. Obviously, this puts him in Batman’s cross hairs. Also featuring characters like Black Mask, Nightwing and Ra’s al Ghul, the film shows a side of the Batman story that isn’t always featured in the live action films.

With a great story, dark tone and interesting characters, it’s easily the 2nd best of the animated films.

I only used this post to talk about these two films, but other recommendation of mine would be “Batman: Year One” (very similar story to “Batman Begins”) and “Superman/Batman: Apocalypse” (more of a Superman story, but still great). And for those of you who are Batman fans and enjoy these animated films, there will be another Batman film this fall based on Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” which is excellent.

That’s all for this first part of the countdown. Next I’ll talk about the Burton and Schumacher films.

Happy viewing.

Review: “Savages”

Rule number one when going head-to-head with a Mexican drug cartel: don’t lose your head.

Director Oliver Stone has been known for making some pretty hard-hitting films over the years, including “Natural Born Killers,” “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July.” Lately, though, the man has fallen to the ranks of an average director.

I’ve never been a big fan of his work, but I was hoping “Savages” would be Stone’s return to form. I hate when great directors get older and start to lose their touch (see: John Carpenter). The film, however, ends up being a mixed bag.

“Savages” is the story of Ben (Aaron Johnson), Chon (Taylor Kitsch), their shared girlfriend Ophelia (Blake Lively) and their booming drug business. After creating a quality stash of marijuana, Ben sets up a full business in Southern California and uses his best friend, and ex-soldier, Chon as his muscle. Ophelia, or “O” as she likes to be called, doesn’t do much of anything other than drugs and the two of them. The three of them seem to be happy until the Mexican cartels come up north and threaten their mostly violence-free setup. When negotiations break down, the head of the cartel (Salma Hayek) has her top henchman (Benicio Del Toro), kidnap O. This leads the boys on a wild rescue mission that tests their relationship with each other and O.

I can’t think of much worse ways to start a film off than to have Blake Lively unleash several minutes’ worth of narration. Not only is it kind of lazy, but even half of the lines she’s delivering are rough. Not a great start.

The film does eventually pick up about 15 minutes in and things finally get under way, but there was defnitely a bad taste left in my mouth.

“Savages” isn’t the action film one might think based on the trailer, but it unleashes heavy amounts of violence in small doses. Torture scenes, explosions and assassinations permeate the film and range from exhilirating to borderline nausea.

The man who is guiding a lot of those tense scenes is Benicio Del Toro’s character, Lado. The audience is introduced to this madman as his hit squad “lawn service” is visiting a dirty lawyer’s house. It doesn’t end well. Del Toro plays the character as sort of an Anton Chigurh with the viciousness of a Mexican cartel. His scene with the lawyer and a later one with John Travolta (who seems to be loving his role) are both filled to the brim with tension.

Although the veteran actors in the film (Hayek and Demian Bichir included) do their best to work with the script, there are simply too many characters and the film doesn’t have time to work on everybody. It’s sad because reports indicate that two of the film’s minor storylines were completely cut from the film already just to make room for the final product. The well-established actors can fend for themselves in the film, but the trio of protagonists suffer the most. Aaron Johnson does what he can with the little room he is given while Kitsch and Lively try to re-define “paper thin” with the help of a weak script. It probably doesn’t help that O is written as a very unsympathetic, annoying character from the start. At least Chon is fairly likable.

Unfortunately, even a director like Oliver Stone is unable to piece it all together in the end. Instead he signs off on one of the dumbest endings in recent memory, which put the nail in the coffin for me. “Savages” could have been a great crime thriller with a little pulp, but there is too much junk mixed in with the good stuff to really enjoy it.

Grade: C+

Happy viewing.

Review: “Moonrise Kingdom”

If there was ever a writer/director who could capture all the awkwardness of a middle school couple in love, it would be Wes Anderson.

Sam (Jared Gilman) is a loner boy scout with less-than-adequate foster parents. Suzy (Kara Hayward) is a “troubled child” who loves to read fantasy adventures. Together they make the perfect pair in this quirky little comedy set on a small New England island.

After meeting at a church’s rendition of “Noah’s Ark,” the two become pen pals and eventually decide to run away together. Enlisting in the search for Sam and Suzy are her parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), Sam’s troop master (Edward Norton) and the island’s only police presence (Bruce Willis).

The first thing I can say about Wes Anderson’s films is that you probably love them or hate them. Each of his films have a certain visual style and their own brand of comedy, so you either think he is a marvelous filmmaker or a hack that is bent on remaking his own movies over and over again. I lean more towards the former.

The film is set in 1965 and, as such, kind of looks like it’s being shot through an Instagram filter. Instead of a wannabe photographer behind the camera, Anderson and his crew guide each scene with expertise. He should have the period down well considering most of his movies either take place in that decade or are heavily influenced by it.

Once you look past the visual elements of the film, what really stands out are the characters and the script. If you’re into the sort of awkward dry humor found in Anderson’s films, you should love both. Edward Norton and Bruce Willis really deliver in this film. Norton is a “Golly gee willikers!!” type who gets a lot of assistance from his troop of Khaki Scouts throughout the film. He and Willis play like parental figures for Sam as the search for he and Suzy marches on.

While these two are great, the film’s leads are excellent given the fact that “Moonrise Kingdom” is the first work either has received. Their characters may be outrageous at times, wielding left-handed scissors against attacking Khaki Scouts or trekking through the forest, but there is something innocent and sweet about their relationship. Some people may get a little weirded out by a certain scene on the beach involving second base, but the kids keep it pretty G-rated the rest of the time.

“Moonrise Kingdom” isn’t your typical comedy for today’s market like “Ted” or “Project X.” but for people who like the Wes Anderson brand, it’s a great time. I’d put it right up there with “Rushmore” or “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.”

Grade: A-

Next up, I’m reviewing the Oliver Stone film “Savages.” Hint: It’s not a glowing endorsement. After that I’ll get around to the Batman reviews I mentioned in my last post. I’m thinking one post on a handful of animated films, one on each film from 1989-1997 and possibly the Nolan films. More on that later.

Happy viewing.

Review: “The Amazing Spider-Man”

It’s a good thing I wait until the next day to review films.

Last night, I went to see “The Amazing Spider-Man” with pretty low expectations. As many people online can point out, this reboot was put together way ahead of any reasonable necessity and a lot of it has to do with studios fighting over the rights to the character. Not exactly a situation that screams quality filmmaking.

The story is both very different and vaguely familiar, as its origin story shares a few characteristics with Sam Raimi’s 2002 film. As someone who has really grown to love the character of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, I enjoyed getting to see Andrew Garfield try his hand at it. The film changes much from its source material, but there are so many incarnations of the character, I didn’t really see it as a problem.

“The Amazing Spider-Man” tells the first chapter of a trilogy (from what I’ve heard) and, as such, feels the need to tell us how Spider-Man came to be. Peter Parker (Garfield) is still a high school nerd that gets picked on by bullies like Flash Thompson. He loves photography and he is, for the most part, a good guy. The main changes from Tobey Maguire’s portrayal is that Garfield plays a more modern approach to the nerd. He likes to ride a skateboard, is less socially awkward and doesn’t find a way to be late for the bus every morning.

Upon visiting Dr. Curtis Connors (Rhys Ifans), a friend of Peter’s parents, at Oscorp, the young hero is bitten by the spider that needs no introduction. Peter finds common ground with the doctor, as he is an expert on crossing species’ genetics and Peter finds himself taking on spider characteristics.

Similar to Norman Osborn in the original, Connors finds himself cornered into personally testing a drug that could regrow his long-lost arm using lizard DNA. Since this is a comic book movie, things go awry and Connors slowly changes into The Lizard.

Over the course of the movie, Peter is forced to take up his “moral responsibility” and save the citizens of New York before Lizard has an opportunity to create a superior race that will replace mankind.

My favorite thing about this movie might be the casting. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst did their best in the 2002 film, but I cannot stand them being in those roles. I’ve loved Andrew Garfield since 2010’s “Never Let Me Go” and the guy is a HUGE Spider-Man fan, so that’s an easy improvement in my eyes. Emma Stone plays Gwen Stacy rather well also, and the pair have a great chemistry in the film. A supporting cast of Martin Sheen, Sally Field and Denis Leary doesn’t hurt either.

As I said before, I loved seeing a different interpretation of the Spider-Man character. He’s witty and animated when under his mask and actually makes a joke that is funny. I had a small problem with moments where Parker was a little too much of a jerk, but the film irons this out eventually. As much as I respect Sam Raimi as a filmmaker and his attempts at this character, it was nice to see something a little less colorful and campy as well.

The reason why I started this review off the way I did is because I was pleasantly surprised with this film. It caught me off guard that I actually liked most of it and had a fun experience. But now that I’ve had some time to think about it more, I realize that just exceeding low expectations does not equal a great film.

First off, the Lizard is not exactly a top-tier villain. He works okay for the story this film is aiming for (the “untold story” of Peter’s parents) and Rhys Ifans does pretty well with the character, but I think the Green Goblin was a much more interesting choice in 2002.

Marc Webb, while responsible for the fun “(500) Days of Summer,” is not exactly the most proven director around. In fact, that is his only other film. All of his other work has been on music videos, which unfortunately shines through during many of the film’s sequences. I won’t go so far as to call his work here soulless like others have, but a little more craftsmanship and heart would’ve gone a long way.

I could probably ramble on for a while with this film, as I’m of two minds about it, but I’ll sum it up with this: “The Amazing Spider-Man” is fun, well-acted and takes on a refreshingly darker tone than its predecessors, but it suffers from mediocre directing and a somewhat-flawed script.

Grade: B-

I’m hoping to review Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” here in the next couple of days. After that, there isn’t a whole lot coming out between now and July 20 when “The Dark Knight Rises” hits theaters. I’m thinking about running through all of the Batman films and reviewing them. We’ll see what happens.

Happy viewing.