REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Nolan's back to finish off his Bat trilogy, but does the threequel live up to its predecessors?

REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Spidey's back, with Marc Webb's controversial reboot finally swinging into cinemas. Can he justify it?

REVIEW: Rock of Ages (2012)

So, as it turns out, yes, Tom Cruise *can* sing. What more do you want?

REVIEW: Prometheus (2012)

Ridley Scott marks his return to sci-fi with this sort-of-an-Alien-prequel. But does it live up to the hype?

REVIEW: Casa de mi Padre (2012)

Yep. It's all in Spanish. And it's all batshit crazy.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises [Review]

How many trilogies do you know where all three components stack up in equal measure? Possibly the only two that come close are the original Star Wars trilogy (Ewoks pending) and The Lord of the Rings.  It’s a rare thing, namely due to the curse of the threequel – see Spider-Man 3, Rush Hour 3 et al.

And just as the release of the other of the summer’s superhero blockbusters was surrounded by one question (was it necessary?), so too is the release of Christopher Nolan’s final instalment of his Dark Knight Trilogy surrounded by a singular matter: can it live up to the unbelievably high standards the director set himself with Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), or will it fall prey to the curse of the threequel?

I’d like to offer you an answer to this in a nutshell, but it isn’t that simple. Sorry, folks: you’re going to have to read the entire thing this time. (Skipping to the stars won’t cut it either, I’m afraid.) The Dark Knight Rises is a curious beast for a sequel in that it is actually its differences from its predecessors that form its main strengths.

The film opens, as did The Dark Knight, with a prologue (which will be familiar to IMAX viewers of 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) introducing its villain. Here said villain comes in the form of masked mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy), though following the structure of the previous instalments, he’s not the only threat to Gotham, nor the only other suped-up principal character – but more on that later.

Our introduction to Bane sees him kidnapping a man from a plane by destroying the aircraft around him. Subtlety’s definitely not his forte, then. But for a man who could conceivably take on the Hulk in a fistfight with even odds, that’s perhaps to be expected. Anyway, Bane journeys to Gotham with a villainous plan that even exceeds the scale of that of Begins – and certainly that of Knight.

Meanwhile, the caped crusader himself has not been seen in the streets of Gotham for eight years, following the climactic scenes of the previous instalment that saw him take the blame for the crimes of Harvey Dent (or Two-Face, for comic fans). The streets are relatively clean, with a thousand crooks behind bars due to the Dent Act – seemingly, there’s no need for old Bats anymore.

Which is probably a good thing, considering the state Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) himself is in. A crippled recluse, the billionaire has barely been seen in eight years (surely someone should be putting two and two together here), hiding out in his mansion following the loss of childhood friend Rachel in The Dark Knight.

It takes a thieving maid in the form of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) to shake him out of his stupor, and it’s no wonder: where the use of Catwoman (though her alias is never mentioned) doubted many Batfans, she’s actually one of the most surprising and interesting characters. True to the source, she’s a typically grey character – we’re never quite sure where her allegiances lie (or indeed if they lie any way other than with herself).

And when Bane arrives in the city clutching a nuclear bomb and holding Wall Street hostage, it looks as if it’s time to don the cowl one last time. When Bats finally does arrive back on screen – accompanied by a great line from one cop to another which I won’t spoil for you – he does it in appropriate style, unveiling a new flying toy from the Fox department.

With all the build-up and character introductions finally out of the way – which takes a good hour, though with a 164 minute runtime there’s plenty left to come – we get to the meat of the story. So it’s a little slow starting, and there’s perhaps a little too much exposition and unnecessary characters, but with the scale of what comes next you’ll find yourself easily forgiving that.


For the first time in the trilogy we feel a genuine sense of jeopardy and danger for Batman – previously we’ve seen him fight dozens of goons simultaneously with relative ease; his only minor undoing coming in Knight at the hands (paws?) of a few canines. But Bane’s sheer physical strength is more than a match for Batman, who is still weakened from damage to his leg and muscle tissue. The Dark Knight trilogy shows not only the repercussions of heroism and vigilantism on a citywide scale, but also on a personal scale: finally, we see just how vulnerable Bruce Wayne really is. Not to give anything away, of course.

Bane’s imposing strength aside, which makes for some of the tensest and most exciting physical encounters you’ll ever see on screen, his other main sticking point is, of course, his voice. It's a cold, robotic drawl that still somehow carries plenty of sinister charm; indeed, Bane’s dulcet tones stand in stark contrast to the brute force of the character himself. Said force is, of course, what separates him from Knight’s Joker – it was always going to be difficult to top Ledger’s iconic performance, so Bane was a very suitable choice of villain. Where Joker was all about doing a lot with a little, and using mental and emotional tactics over physical acts, Bane is the reverse, and strives to do a lot with... well, a lot.

Or so it would seem. Joker’s agenda, unveiled in his speech to Harvey Dent that gave birth to Two Face in one of Knight’s best scenes, draws some parallels with Bane’s – essentially, inciting the 99% to cause chaos against the 1% - but that of the latter is less clear cut. Does Bane really want to ignite the streets and prompt a revolution, following Nolan’s social commentary that has run through his entire trilogy, or does he simply want to destroy Gotham? When we finally found out more about the character – which, given how little backstory Joker had, is no less than welcome – and how he ties in to the running story of the entire trilogy, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed.

To say more would be to spoil things a little too much, but suffice to say there are more villains in this tale than just Bane (and to an extent, Selina Kyle) – including a handful of familiar faces. Meanwhile, returning actors Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are all on top form as some of Wayne’s only allies, with Caine in particular stealing the show as butler Alfred. Though his motives and allegiance to Wayne’s cause may have altered slightly in the eight years since the billionaire last donned the Batsuit, there’s plenty reason for it, and a few teary eyed exchanges are likely to cause the audience to follow suit.

Franchise newbie Joseph Gordon-Levitt also threatens to steal the limelight from Bale, slotting naturally into Nolan’s Bat-verse. His character arc may drag slightly towards the finale and be painfully predictable, but it also provides a very interesting alternative – the likes of which have never really been seen in the trilogy until now.

But characters aside - where Knight was tightly written and cohered into a logical story, the progression of Rises is questionable. Too often we are asked to further stretch our suspension of disbelief, which doesn’t stack up against Nolan’s emphasis on grounded realism. Time passes sporadically with little indication and characters wind up in locations with little explanation of how. In this sense the scripting can often feel clunky and haphazard – perhaps in due process of the grand themes Nolan attempts to tackle, even in the course of the already bloated runtime (which luckily passes smoothly after the first hour of exposition).

Speaking of clunky scripts, there are one too many plot holes – those so inclined can read a few of them here, but beware the obvious spoilery nature of the article – in a universe that was heretofore almost exempt of them. But for all its flaws – and you will come to realise how many more of them are evident as more time passes since viewing, once you get past the initial awed reaction – The Dark Knight Rises is still a monster of a film: not quite as tight as Knight, but a fitting end to the trilogy that ramps up the scale and hammers on the intensity. 2012’s best superhero blockbuster? You bet your Batmobile it is.

✰✰✰

Dir: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard
Warner Bros. Pictures, 164 mins, 20/07/12

Synopsis: Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight and it's time for Batman to come out of retirement (don't worry, that doesn't mean George Clooney's back), as terrorist leader Bane threatens to destroy Gotham with a nuclear device, while a mysterious Cat-like woman prowls the streets, and Bruce Wayne's mansion...

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man [Review]

The main question on moviegoers’ minds with Marc Webb’s arachnid-hero reboot is, of course: is it worth it? But even after finally viewing the controversial remake, it’s still a tough one to answer.

You know the setup – high-school student Peter Parker struggles to find himself, and then along comes a spider to do it for him. If you’ve seen Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man film (which is still only a decade old) or indeed anything remotely related to the franchise, you’ll know this already. What you might not know, if you’ve only seen Raimi’s trilogy, is just how far from the original comics Spider-Man veered.

So that’s Webb’s first goal here: to take a leaf out of the comic books themselves, which are constantly rebooting, and attempt to get things back on track (as reflected in the title, which is taken from that of Spidey’s first series). So Mary Jane’s gone; instead, Gwen Stacy returns from Raimi’s series, this time as Peter’s (original) love interest and in the form of a very blonde Emma Stone, rather than the two-dimensional plot device that was Bryce Dallas Howard in the lacklustre Spider-Man 3.

Elsewhere, we have a renewed focus on Peter Parker’s backstory; the original film skimped heavily on the man behind the suit, at least where his life before it was concerned. Instead, Webb has reversed the situation: the film’s desire to give us a more complete picture of Parker’s life is so great that it is essentially split into two halves – before and after the suit. And it’s the before that really hits home, with more focus on the human side of things, including an eight-year-old Parker being left with his aunt and uncle by fleeing parents – who received no mention whatsoever in Raimi’s trilogy.

Before we get to that, however, let’s concentrate on The Amazing Spider-Man’s strengths (with deliberate avoidance of the now clich├ęd use of the ‘does/doesn’t do what it says on the tin’ titular reference). Namely, Mr. Andrew Garfield, aka Tobey Maguire’s replacement. And what a replacement. Doing a fine job of showing just why Webb’s reboot is justified, the babyfaced actor neatly sidesteps the fact he’s playing a character half his age and blows Maguire’s interpretation out of the water.

More convincing, likeable and yet still one to feel sorry for – particularly after the obligatory death of a relative – Garfield pretty much nails the comic version of Parker. If there’s one flaw in his character, it comes purely from the script (as do most of The Amazing Spider-Man’s flaws) – once he dons the suit, his character comes across as a little too cocky and arrogant, and it becomes more difficult to empathise with his plight to avenge the aforementioned death.

Indeed, as Parker’s ‘transformation’ into the Man Spider takes place, the film undergoes its own transformation – from a high school romance drama between Garfield and Stone into a popcorn action flick. While you might be inclined to assume that surely the latter would be more suited to a superhero film, in the post-Avengers world of summer 2012, the former was a welcome relief from brainless superhero action. Thus, once The Amazing Spider-Man’s villain finally emerges in the form of the Lizard (Rhys Ifans), it feels like a step back for the tone Webb has established in the first half.

The action scenes are hardly Webb’s forte – his previous film credits include (500) Days of Summer and, well, nowt else – so it’s clear why the film’s first half, concentrating on the human relationships, is superior. When the Lizard does come into play, his motivations are underplayed, his delivery too camp (and slightly too Raimi-era Green Goblin-esque) and his appearance too fantastical. The tone doesn’t sit flush with what’s come before, and it’s hard not to wish Webb had gone with a different villain. There’s plenty to choose from, after all.

Meanwhile, more script problems hinder the film’s coherency. Plot points feel underdeveloped; a final scene involving New York’s Joe Public assisting Spidey would have had much more impact had we had any inclination that they had had any prior resentment towards the friendly neighbourhood hero. Without any avenue to show this, however (J Jonah Jameson and the Daily Bugle are conspicuously absent, aside from a cameo from the paper, with Parker taking photos for... his bedroom wall?) the only person we really see lamenting the existence of Spider-Man is Gwen’s father, Police Captain George Stacy.

But a few flaws with the film’s second act aside, the first half and tone of The Amazing Spider-Man might well be enough to justify its existence, and just what this critic (and perhaps audiences alike) needed in this post-Avengers world. So that’s two of three major superhero blockbusters this summer, and both have succeeded – if for different reasons – though neither have attained close to perfection. The final of the three seemed the only one likely to in the first place, though... and it’s only a week or so till we find out either way.

✰✰✰

Dir: Marc Webb
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Rhys Ifans, Emma Stone, Martin Sheen, Sally Field
Columbia Pictures, 136 mins, 03/07/12

SynopsisSpider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can... all over again. We're back to square one with Marvel's most popular superhero franchise, in the second of the summer's trio of super-blockbusters, as the experiments of a scientific acquaintance of the young Peter Parker get slightly out of hand...