Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

This is a Batman movie with not very much Batman.

Batman Begins, the starting point for this iteration of the franchise, took its time introducing the title hero. That would be expected in an origin story but this is no longer the beginning - it's supposed to be the end. The public intention of The Dark Knight Rises is to wrap up the trilogy, picking up from where the The Dark Knight ended.

It doesn't, not really.

At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman is on the run, and I would have expected him to be there at the opening of The Dark Knight Rises, still an outlaw, still on the run, but poised for redemption. But no. It's eight years later, and no one in Gotham City has seen the Batman since the night Harvey Dent was killed, supposedly by Batman himself..

The movie is more a story about people. It is the story of Bruce Wayne, who begins the movie a broken man. I read an article a year or so ago that talked about what a real-life Batman would need. The author speculated on the amount of money required, the amount of training and martial arts skill, and talked about the narrow window of youth. Batman, like elite, professional athletes, would have to train for many years to become expert, and following his training would only have a few years left of his prime in which to remain effective as Batman. After that, age inevitably brings him down.

So it's eight years later and for Bruce Wayne, the window seems to have closed. He has no cartilage in either knee. His elbow is shot. He walks with a cane. Batman would seem only a dim memory for Bruce Wayne. It is also the story of Alfred Pennyworth, who panics as Master Bruce begins to flirt again with the idea of cape and cowl. It is the story of Commissioner Gordon, sidelined like the Batman; he's seen by up-and-comers as yesterday's news. It is the story of Selena Kyle, cat-burglar for hire and how her life intersects first with Bruce Wayne, and then later with the Batman. It is the story of several other minor characters who all have important elements to add to the story; Miranda, Bruce Wayne's lover and the Wayne Foundation's last hope, Deputy Commissioner Foley, political and conservative and weak but suddenly the cop in charge.

But the movie's two main characters (apart from Bruce Wayne) are Officer John Blake, who seems to be Gotham's last remaining hope, ...

... and Bane.

Bane is the most powerful, the most vicious villain that Batman has ever faced. A complete contrast from the last movie (and therefore a great story choice) featuring the Joker who was dastardly, tricky and unpredictable, Bane comes at you from the front with heavy feet and raw, terrifying power. From the comic books, it was Bane that broke the Batman's back, picking him him up and breaking him over his knee. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman and Bane fight, brutally and without finesse. It's obvious from the start that Batman is giving his best and is hopelessly outmatched. Bane allows him to land blows, just to show him. We in the audience are alarmed not just as Bane seems entirely unaffected but our sense of alarm ratchets up with every cutaway that showsthe calm regard of Bane's henchmen; they stand nonchalantly, their arms over their weapons, regarding Batman's assault on Bane with a confidence can be mistaken for boredom.

And then Bane picks up the Batman and he drops him over his knee.

It is a rare action sequence for the caped crusader who remains off-screen for most of the movie. As a result, I wonder if the character and story focus will suit the film more to adults than to kids and teens. I've heard snatches of Ian's comments to friends that seem to support this expectation. The Dark Knight Rises is the comic book movie with the least amount of comic book.

It is a grim, dark, wonderful and engaging movie. It provides a chilling sense of peril and jeopardy for Bruce Wayne and the Dark Knight.

It's also a long movie, populated by a lot of minor characters who, some have said, serve only to confuse the audience. I shared a similar sense of it from the first teasers and casting announcements. Joseph Gordon Levitt, who is HE playing? Marion Cotillard, same thing. Is this just Chris Nolan populating the movie with as many actors as he can from Inception (five?)? I would have been in complete agreement with this criticism ... right up to the last 15 minutes of the movie.

So, geez, am I really going to be the dissenting voice regarding Anne Hathaway? She has been receiving raves for her performance as Catwoman and, okay, she is good in the role. She is also very beautiful and a fine actor and her performance in this movie has been overhyped.

Finally, why three? Why is three such a magic and absolute number in this current trend of superhero movies? I'm not sure if the surperhero genre is blessing or bane for those who want to see honest-to-god good movies. But with the resolution (or not) of this Batman trilogy, it's as plain as the nose on your cowl that there remain several more excellent stories to tell. And it's a shame that this very talented team of director, writers, crew and actors are apparently not the ones who will be back to tell them.

Three Straws.

P.S. It hurts my heart that so many people, out to participate at this movie's premiere, same as me and my son,  people who were out with high and gleeful expectations to be entertained and just have fun, ended up being shot to death in Colorado. I am at a loss to express the horror of it.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

Three isn’t a lot.

It’s not a lot if you’re collecting playing cards, it’s not a lot if you’re putting books on a book shelf, and it’s not a lot if you’re buying grapes at the store (but, on the other hand, it’s great for lists).

So after only three Spider-Man movies, it seemed pretty early to be hitting the reset button.

Nothing changed my mind about that after seeing the first few teaser trailers. Or glimpses of the updated costume.

So now let me go back a little farther. It’s September 2009 and I’m in Toronto to see a U2 concert. This is only relevant because the concert happened to be going on the same time as TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). For TIFF, I waited in line for the chance to see two movies -  one I got in (Whip It) and the other I didn’t (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). When the one I didn't see finally aired on The Movie Network, I was completely charmed by it and all of the performances in it.

Some years later it was announced that Andrew Garfield, who played “Anton” in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, was to be the new Spider-Man. My reaction was, "Oh!!" Building on this news and successive spidey-trailers, the more I saw of the movie, the more I wanted to see it.

The clear strength of this latest version is its cast. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are clearly too old for high-school, but, really, so what. Watch them try to talk about going out for a first date in the high school corridor and tell me they’re not wonderful. Rhys Ifans is mostly known playing a string of eccentrics (notably Notting Hill and later Xenophilius Lovegood in Harry Potter) but in this and last year’s Greenberg, he’s been very good as the guy sadly but nobly carrying the invisible burdens life. His nobility is corrupted in the Amazing Spider-Man (not all his fault) and he becomes another in a list of reluctant villains. The Lizard does not seem to be trending well on that list (will anyone ever supplant Doc Ock at the top?), but that’s not Ifans’ fault; the Lizard is completely generated by CGI and my brain kept getting images of its talking face and saying, no. No.

On the other hand, Spidey gets to do some mighty fine SFX stuff.

Remember the ‘60s cartoon where Spider-Man is web-slinging over the city and he shoots his webs to somewhere up above the camera frame on to things you can’t see (clouds?)? In advance of the first of the Tobey Maguire movies, I would lie awake and wonder how they would craft this into the film. In my mind’s eye, I kept seeing Spider-Man crashing George-of-the-Jungle style into a wall on his way down. How do you attach a web to a building and have physics on your side to swing up from the bottom of the arc without the building getting in the way?

Okay, so there you have a glimpse into my admittedly bizarre brain, but I bring it up only in reference to the climactic battle, where a very cheesy scene results from a specific collection of New Yorkers rallying to come to the aid of their new hero. But as contrived as it is, it pays off into the best web-swinging scenes of the franchise. Overall, I liked the physicality of this new Spider-Man and not just in regard to his stunts. The way he moves and especially the way he smart-mouths bad guys, cops and citizens, (“Hey, I’m swingin’ here…!”) are more in line with the character from the comic books. Also, when Spider-Man gets beat up, Peter Parker is the one who has to bear the cuts and bruises which, absent suit and mask, have nowhere to hide. At the end of the movie, Peter comes home and you figure that Aunt May knows. How could she not know.

The Amazing Spider-Man has left room for improvement. There will obviously be sequels to make the effort. Sally Field as Aunt May is a big name in a thankless role. Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben doesn't fare much better. The Lizard, well, we talked about him.

So many familiar plot points from the original movie are recycled into this one; both end with the rain falling on so many dark blossoms of funeral umbrellas. I liked this movie better than the original Spider-Man but somehow it still felt too soon, maybe only because the origin story had to be told all over again.

Two major plot points were left glaringly unresolved and serve only to whet the appetite for the next instalment: What was it exactly that happened to Peter’s parents, and who was that mystery guy in the jail cell. Could it finally be … Electro?

Three Straws.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Let’s start at the beginning, which for a Pixar film is the "short" that precedes the movie. La Luna is an engaging little story about a family business. Three generations of workers – father, young son and old grandfather – are gathered in a rowboat for their daily chore. The row boat is named La Luna. It's implied that this work has been done for generations and story of this little movie is to show you exactly what that work is. You get the idea it is very specialized work indeed once the anchor thrown overboard to attach to … the moon. The characters are drawn simply, speak in grunts and chuffs that are vaguely Italian, and the movie, while sweet, is largely unremarkable until the wonderful payoff at the end.

The main show is Brave.

This is Pixar’s first original story after two years of sequels (Cars 2 and Toy Story 3) and I had high expectations. I was disappointed. Technically, the movie is a wonder of modern craftsmanship. The heroine’s wavy red locks are the star of the show and I was reminded, from all those years ago, of Sulley from Monsters, Inc. and the talk of what an achievement in animation it was for Pixar to be able to make his fur move the way it did. Merida, the young heroine of Brave, is upstaged by her hair. The movie’s set pieces are so extra-ordinary, that you’d be excused for thinking they are real. The castle, the woods, the craggy Scottish shore are wonderfully rendered. They are exquisite. They are beautiful.

The story sucks.

Pixar made great movies by blending state-of-the-art animation with characters you love and wonderful stories. Everything was story. I’m a big Pixar fan which puts me on a list with maybe a couple of billion other people and I have combed the behind-the-scenes featurettes on their DVDs where directors and animators drive home the importance of character, animation and story, story, story! In Brave, the best parts of the story are at the beginning, and these you’ve already seen in trailers. Moving on, the main character does something so ghastly, so selfish and so seemingly unforgivable that she puts herself beyond redemption. She and the movie move on rather cavalierly without any requisite measure of regret or contrition. The story that never hits the appropriate emotional response to her horrid deed.

Well, of course it doesn’t. It couldn't. That would have been too dark for a modern Disney movie.

Yes, a Disney movie. How much of the Pixar magic got lost in  the takeover, I wonder. Maybe because the bar was set so high by Pixar’s forerunners. Or maybe it's because Disney has its coroporate fingers in Pixar. Merida, after all, is being hailed as the newest Disney princess. That pantheon is diminished by her inclusion.

Brad Bird talks on the commentary track for The Incredibles about different aspects of the animation – how Pixar's Spanish animators were the best ones for feats of strength, how (and why) a junior animator was put in charge of the villain, Syndrome. While I watched Brave, I thought more about junior animators; there is so much "cartoonishness" - mugging for the camera, over-the-top expressions. It rang sour notes and distracted me from the story. Merida’s father, the King, moves and acts and grins like a buffoon. The mother, after her change-of-life event, moves in comic grotesque, displaying exaggerated surprise and suffereing endless pratfalls. Yes, there were several scenes that made me laugh, but the wit and grace of previous Pixar movies is only a spectre of its former self. It is harder to find in Brave than a will-o-the-wisp.

Brave is beautiful, misnamed and mediocre. It breaks my heart a little. Two Straws.