Film Review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The Dark Knight Rises
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Story by David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan
Screenplay by Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan

Rating: B+

Christopher Nolan and the rest of the creative team really dug themselves into a hole with The Dark Knight. They made quite possibly the greatest comic book movie of all time, featuring one of the brilliant performances in film history by the late Heath Ledger playing their character’s most compelling villain. Then they had to reconvene and write a third installment that would live up to the brilliance of its predecessor and close out their trilogy in a way that works. Although The Dark Knight Rises is not quite as good as The Dark Knight, it is by far the best super hero trilogy closer yet.

The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after The Dark Knight, a period during which Batman has disappeared and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse. Crime is almost non-existant in the city thanks to new laws inacted in Gotham City in honor of the late Harvey Dent, who is portrayed as a hero despite his fall. The relative peace of Gotham is destroyed with the coming of Bane, a terrorist leader hell-bent on annihilating Gotham under the false pretense of freeing it. Seemingly reluctantly involved is Catwoman, a woman named Selina Kyle who works as a thief to earn enough to get rid of the past she wants to get away from. With all of the trouble that starts to tear apart the city, Bruce Wayne comes out of his shell as Batman is forced to re-emerge.

There were two key issues based on the early information and trailers about the film that were the cause of most concern. The first of these is the casting of Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, which seemed suspect based on the scenes of her in action in the parts shown in the trailers. As it turns out, she very quickly proves that she is capable in the role, although not extraordinary. The second and most important concern was that Bane is a fairly boring villain after using both Two-Face and the Joker in the previous films, arguably the two most important villains in Batman’s canon. Bane is generally portrayed as a Mexican wrestler crossed with a ‘roid rager, and that doesn’t quite live up to the former District Attorney-turned-serial-killer of Two-Face or the Clown Prince of Crime. The film version is a signficant improvement over Bane’s depiction in the source material, but he is definitely not as charismatic or thrilling a villain as any of those previously shown in the series.

The biggest surprise of the movie is how much Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s storyline as young cop John Blake really made the movie. He is a very intelligent and capable cop, who in quieter times would obviously rise up in the ranks very quickly. It is hard not to be reminded of the idea of a young James Gordon in his absolute belief in the right thing, although we suspect Blake might even surpass Gordon in that respect. His relationship to Bruce Wayne and Batman in the film is a wonderful symbolism of what Batman as a figure means to all of the people in Gotham who don’t believe he was responsible for the death of Dent. Gordon-Levitt is outstanding in the role, and both Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman turn in their best performances in the trilogy for their parts as Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox, respectively.

Despite the underwhelming villain, the plot of The Dark Knight Rises is outstanding and the build up to the finale is really well done. There are some really great twists that won’t be spoiled here but that upped the satisfaction level, despite at least one major one being far too heavily foreshadowed. A final judgement on a film of this scope really has to be made after repeated viewings, but it is at least a very good conclusion to the mythos. There is a lot to say from a comic book geek perspective in terms of things that seemed strange to leave out, or choices made in the end about certain characters, but these are qualms that probably wouldn’t even be noticed by someone without a familiarity with the source material. In the end, it is hard not to wish that a better villain than Bane had been chosen to close out the Nolan trilogy, but it is hard to complain about the film as a whole.

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Film Review: Justice League Doom (2012)

Justice League Doom
Directed by Lauren Montgomery
Written by Dwayne McDuffie

Rating: B+

With all the criticisms DC Comics has gotten over the past several years over their non-Batman live action film adaptations, at least it can be said that they know exactly what they are doing when it comes to animated features. Justice League Doom, the swan song of the sadly departed writer Dwayne McDuffie, is the thirteenth in the series that has only been going on since 2007. Loosely based on the comic story Tower of Babel by Mark Waid, the basic story revolves around the idea of the villain, in this case Vandal Savage, discovering the secret contingency plans Batman had in place just in case any members of the Justice League were to go rogue. Using the weaknesses against them, Savage assembles a collection of villains to take out the League so that he can start his plans for world domination.

For this particular film, all of the voices of the original Justice League animated series were brought back. Kevin Conroy is Batman, Tim Daly is Superman, Susan Eisenberg is Wonder Woman, Michael Rosenbaum is The Flash, and Carl Lumbly is Martian Manhunter, all of whom played the same roles in the DC Animated Universe series. Newcomers include Nathan Fillion (of Firefly and Castle fame) as the Hal Jordan incarnation of Green Lantern, a role he previously played in the Emerald Knights DC Animated movie, and Bumper Robinson as Cyborg. It is worth noting that the version of the Flash played by Rosenbaum here is Barry Allen, whereas in the original show he was the younger Wally West. Rosenbaum takes the difference between the two characters seriously, and his Allen is clearly distinguishable from his West.

Tower of Babel is one of the cooler Justice League stories in recent memory, and McDuffie’s adaptation for this film is strong. The lineup of the Justice League here is essentially the same as is currently starring in the comic books, with the only exception that this film features Martian Manhunter instead of Aquaman. Taking Waid’s story and telling it with the current incarnation of the League is a smart choice that makes the film feel very current, as if it could be slotted into continuity with the books without any issue. Some of the choices in villains to put the individual members of the League against could have been better (anyone but Bane, please) but the interplay between hero and villain is satisfying in practically every storyline. It is definitely helped by the quality of voice acting which, aside from the aforementioned heroes, features Alexis Denisof as Mirror Master, Olivia d’Abo as Star Sapphire, and a half dozen more, all of whom are at least good if not stellar.

Although there are slow parts around the middle, Justice League Doom is as good as getting new episodes of the Justice League show. Hearing the whole cast return with the addition of Nathan Fillion is a wonderful mix of childhood nostalgia and fanboy giddiness, which is something we can all use more of. It isn’t quite as perfect as it was in comic book form, but this film is definitely worthwhile and will have rewatch value for anyone. It doesn’t hurt that the disc is full of great bonus features. This film should basically please anyone with an interest in the Justice League as a whole or any of the individuals characters featured.

Film Review: Batman: Year One (2012)

Batman: Year One
Directed by Lauren Montgomery & Sam Liu
Based on work by Frank Miller

Rating: A-

Frank Miller has two very important legacies in the history of Batman. The first of these is The Dark Knight Returns, a completely non-canon alternate reality story in which Batman comes out of retirement in middle age to kick some more ass and act like a total asshole. It is often seen as one of the great comic book stories of all time, but portrays Batman as chauvinistic and completely unlikable in attempt to make a grittier version of the dark knight. It is criminally overrated.

The second and far superior story that Miller contributed to the history of Batman is Batman: Year One, an aptly titled telling of Batman’s first year fighting crime as the caped crusader while future police commissioner James Gordon endures his first year on the force in Gotham as an honest man in a dishonest police department. Gordon is really the main character of the story; almost all of the narrative is from Gordon himself, voiced perfectly by Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame in this film version. Catwoman also appears in an almost-so-minor-it’s-pointless supporting role, portrayed very capably by Eliza Dushku. Katee Sackhoff of Battlestar Galactica is Detective Essen, Alex Rocco is mob boss Carmine Falcone, and Benjamin McKenzie is Batman himself.

A film adaptation that takes the source material and translates it to the screen exactly is almost pointless, but thoroughly enjoyable anyway. Although there is absolutely nothing different about it, seeing the film is a lot like reading the original story for the first time, and that has value. The voice cast is almost entirely stellar, although Batman could have been better cast. The visuals are perfect, and the entire production makes for an animated film that is just as enjoyable as the Christopher Nolan live action films. That being said, if you have already read the book, there is nothing new to experience here. Still, if you can appreciate a quality transfer between two mediums, Batman: Year One will be enjoyed.

Film Review: The Amazing Spider-man (2012)

The Amazing Spider-Man
Directed by Marc Webb
Written by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves

Rating: B+

Rebooting a franchise that had three films making just about a billion dollars each in box office sales only five years after the last in the series doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. Despite terrible reviews for the final chapter, Sam Raimi’s film version of Spider-man was popular and made a completely ridiculous amount of money. Why start fresh? It was hard not to wonder before going in to see The Amazing Spider-man, but now it makes a lot more sense.

While the Raimi trilogy was enjoyable in spite of some problems (Tobey Maguire was never great as Spidey, Kirsten Dunst was cute at times and unbearable at others), this new reboot of Spider-man directed by Marc Webb is the real Spider-man that comic book readers have been hoping for since the web-slinger originally made it to the big screen. It is a significantly more faithful adaptation, featuring Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy rather than Mary Jane (who was a much later girlfriend in the comics), and getting rid of the film Spider-man’s natural web-slinging ability in favor of the technology based wrist attachments of the comics. Most importantly, though, is the tone; Raimi’s trilogy was too light to be taken seriously, while Webb has just enough grit and the right kind of humor to make a film that feels decidedly more like the real Spider-man.

Andrew Garfield is a perfect encapsulation of the two major versions of Spider-man in comics, the traditional Earth-616 incarnate that you would see in any Spider-man comic, and Ultimate Spider-man, the slightly younger modern reimagining that started not long before the Raimi franchise. Garfield has the awkward nerdiness and the humor exactly right, with much help from a really great script. Emma Stone is absolutely perfect, adorable, and brilliant as Gwen Stacy, which makes for her inevitable exit in some film to come all the more unfortunate.

If The Lizard is a villain you appreciated from the comics or the animated show, you are significantly more likely to be pleased with him as a villain in The Amazing Spider-man. Fans who are more used to Venom or Dr. Octopus may find him a little tepid, and his character could have been slightly better executed in the new film, but anyone who grew up watching the Spider-man cartoon in the 90’s probably got as excited as I did seeing the Lizard wearing that battered lab coat. Rhys Ifans plays the part of Dr. Curt Connors perfectly, although the visual representation of the Lizard following his transformation sometimes looks a bit awkward.

The type of viewer who never reads a comic book and whose only exposure to Spider-man is his appearances in live action films is much more likely to be disappointed with this movie than someone who reads the stories or watched the cartoons. The Amazing Spider-man is really the Spider-man for comic books fans, whereas Raimi’s trilogy was the Spider-man for popcorn movie goers. Both have their merits but the fact is that, aside from Alfred Molina’s outstanding role as Doc Ock in Spider-man 2, The Amazing Spider-man improves in every department.

Film Review: Prometheus (2012)

Prometheus
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Jon Spaihts & Damon Lindelof

Rating: A

Ridley Scott has been a real mixed bag in science fiction. He is responsible for the most criminally overrated film adaptation of all time in Blade Runner, which turns a cerebral and brilliant science fiction masterpiece of a novel into a poorly paced film that has aesthetic going for it and nothing else. On the other side of the coin is Alien, a completely original film that combines elements of horror and pure deep space sci-fi into an immensely entertaining and scary film that overcomes any lack of depth with visual excitement and strong characterization. Prometheus is a spirtual prequel to Alien that takes all the elements that made Alien great and adds depth to make a film that surpasses it.

In the year 2089, a team of archeologists lead by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace of the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo film trilogy) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a star map on an island in Scotland that matches exactly drawings found in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Sumeria, and a handful of others. Being that none of these ancient cultures ever had any connection, Shaw and Holloway believe that the pattern is not a coincidence but an invitation from the alien creators of man to come meet their makers, as it were. They convince the Weyland Corporation to fund an expedition to find the location of the map and try to answer the questions of where humanity came from. Joining them on the mission are an android called David (played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender of Inglourious Basterds and X-Men: First Class fame), a Weyland liason (Charlize Theron), the ship’s Captain Janek (Idris Elba), and a handful of others.

Although the film has a lot of the same scares and action that made Alien so much fun, Prometheus is a much more cerebral undertaking that asks poignant questions about the nature of faith and the origins of man, while also being sure not to present any concrete answers so that the viewer can make up one’s own mind. Many viewers find it frustrating when a film doesn’t tell you exactly what to think, but it is a mark of stronger filmmaking to ask the questions and provide the evidence for both sides and allow the one watching to decide. The script is not flawless, but the story is engaging, the philosophical questions are so strong, and the cast is overall so brilliant that the end result is a film that is genuinely more satisfying than Alien. Although Scott may not always hit the mark, he has shown with this film that the world he created in Alien is one he will always be his; others have dabbled here, but his two entries in the series are superior.

Film Review: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Castle in the Sky
Written & directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Rating: B-

Hayao Miyazaki is by far the most successful Japanese director in the United States that is still active in film. Every time one of his movies gets translated to English and released in the States, there are hordes of people who make seeing it their first priority, much in the same way that fans of directors like Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, and Wes Anderson will see anything they put out because of the style that makes their films so unique. In the case of Miyazaki, it is a sort of environmentalist-tinged whimsy that feels distinctly Japanese and yet entirely accessible to just about anyone who has even the vaguest interest in anime.

Castle in the Sky (called such in the United States because the original title almost contained a derogatory word in Spanish) is a steampunk film featuring airships, goggles, flying cities, and just about everything else that people look for in the genre. It is one of Miyazaki’s earlier works (by comparison to recent efforts like Ponyo) and tells the story of a young girl being chased by the government who falls from the sky and is caught by a young boy. Her fall is slowed by the power of a strange glowing stone. The two become fast friends and decide to go out in search for her identity while simultaneously being concerned for the fate of Laputa, the last of the cities in the sky.

It is a pretty straight-forward adventure, which has its fun moments and strong voice acting (based on the most recent English language version featuring Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek, Mark Hamill, and Cloris Leachman) but doesn’t really go beyond that. Although it is far from a masterpiece, it is easy to enjoy for someone who is interested in anime and likes the steampunk aesthetic. It doesn’t have the same charm of Ponyo or the same impact of films like Princess Mononoke  or others, but it is worthwhile as a look at Miyazaki before he became the semi-household name he is now.