The Dark Knight Rises
Disconnected significantly from the flow of logic between the first and second installments of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” films, “The Dark Knight Rises” is a disjointed mess. Plot inconsistencies from the last two films — about things such as the performance of Batman’s hi-tech armored suit — arise when he battles the least charismatic — or knowable — villain of any of the Batman movies, dating back to Joel Schumacher’s four installments. Tom Hardy’s hulking Bane gets lost behind a cloistering mask that covers his face below the eyes due to a beating his character received while imprisoned in the Middle East many years ago. The mask ostensibly holds Bane’s face together and enables him to breathe. Even more suppressed is any context for Bane’s desire to wipe out humanity via a nuclear bomb, which he aimlessly transports around the streets of Manhattan for a few weeks in one of three decoy trucks.
For such a bloated movie — it runs a ridiculous 165 minutes — you’d think the screenwriters (Nolan and his brother Jonathan) could at least manage to weave a proper narrative together. Robert McKee won’t be referencing “The Dark Knight Rises” in any of his screenwriting seminars. The best thing “The Dark Knight Rises” has on offer is Anne Hathaway’s butt-in-the-air silhouette as her Catwoman speeds around Manhattan on Batman’s mean-machine motorcycle.
Unreliable characters saturate the story. Catwoman has more in common with a black widow than a feline when it comes to loyalty. Her alter ego Selina Kyle is a hypocrite thief who betrays Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne every chance she gets. For his part, Bruce Wayne proves himself to be a terrible judge of character. His misplaced trust in Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate, a corporate mover-and-shaker for clean energy, takes a heavy toll. Worse yet, Bruce Wayne betrays Alfred, his most trusted confidant and assistant, in an impulsive fit of anger. Batman doesn’t make for a very persuasive anti-hero this time around. There isn’t much to like or respect in this latest incarnation of a crime-fighter who we discover during a ghostly visitation by Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul, was built for failure from the beginning.
Christopher Nolan’s outspoken defense of fans that rained down threats on critics of the movie before they had even seen it, speaks to the bullying hype surrounding the film. The film’s odd pokes at political exploitation — regarding the battle being waged between the world’s 99% and their elite corporate oppressors — come across as half-hearted attempts at pandering. Even without the Colorado shooting tragedy that will forever haunt “The Dark Knight Rises,” the film represents a soulless and gratuitous ploy that favors flimflam over substance. There’s something gross and mean in the way Nolan approaches the material. It’s not an entertaining or enjoyable film to watch. The only likable characters are secondary roles. You keep wishing that Morgan Freeman’s Fox, Michael Caine’s Alfred, and Joseph Gordon-Levvitt’s police officer John Blake would co-opt the story.
The bottom-line is that Christopher Nolan is a better director than he is a screenwriter. He specializes in plot holes and logic gaps in the same the way that M. Night Shyamalan toys with hackneyed suspense device. It would be good if Christopher Nolan didn’t make anymore Batman movies. The world could certainly use fewer comic book movies. It’s just sad that Nolan had to take so many talented people down with him in a movie that sinks under the weight of its own pretentions. You can sit through “The Dark Knight Rises” once, but you’ll never want to see it again.
Rated R. 95 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Amazing Spider-Man
The Same Web Twice
Sony Reboots Spidey and Company
By Cole Smithey
How quickly generations come and go. If you’re old enough to remember seeing Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man, and thought Tobey Maguire would carry Spider-Man’s mantle far into the 21st century, Hollywood is here to tell you your time has passed. You were wrong. Maguire’s quirky vulnerability has been firmly usurped by Andrew Garfield — coming across like a young Anthony Perkins, if any of you are old enough to remember him from a little black-and-white movie called “Psycho.”
Spidey 2.0 has some very good things going for it — 3D effects, sadly are not among them. The IMAX-branded 3D countdown intro reel that rolls before the movie starts is more impressive than anything that occurs during the movie. It’s too damn bad the production company chose not to bring in a 3D cinematographer to plan specific shots to “break the window.” How long will it take before Hollywood gets the bleeding message — If you’re going to go to the trouble of making a 3D movie, break the freaking window dammit! — Which means put the 3D effects right in front of the audience’s noses where they rightfully belong.
There’s far too much apologetic “unobtrusive 3D” disinformation flying around from critics like Variety’s Boyd Van Hoeij, who clearly knows nothing about what goes into creating successful 3D effects.
Unlike Raimi’s version of the same comic book story there’s no, “With great power comes great responsibility” theme-line to anchor Peter Parker’s sense of duty. Still, the nuts and bolts of Parker’s transformation into the hyper athletic “bug-boy” run very parallel. For his part, Martin Sheen does a lot with a little as Peter’s Uncle Ben.
Director Marc Webb — yes that his real name — shows a little too much of his music-video past during a montage sequence where Peter gets his gravity-defying groove on while riding his skateboard in an abandoned shipyard. Sappy singer-songwriter music underscores the jump-cut edits. If ever there were a sequence that would have gained muscle by having nothing but source-sound, this is it. Still, it’s a forgivable enough blunder from a filmmaker whose primary claim to fame is an under-seen little romantic drama called “500 Days of Summer.”
Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” is a lot of movie. The CGI is outstanding. The action-set pieces are lavish, bold, and generate enough electric current to make you jump in your seat more than a few times.
Emma Stone is less restrained than Kirsten Dunst’s version of Peter Parker’s love interest. Stone isn’t playing MJ. Rather she is Gwen Stacy, daughter to police Captain Stacy (well played by Denis Leary). The film’s three screenwriters go heavy on coincidences. Gwen sits next to Peter at school, and also happens to work at the scientific research corporation where Peter has a connection to one of its key scientists — Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). The writers don’t make a believable gambit regarding Gwen and Peter being high school students. Still, these are minor concerns, considering the overall package at hand. Stone and Garfield share surefire chemistry. The romantic connection might not simmer in the way it did between Maguire and Dunst, but there’s plenty of emotional grit-and-grist to reboot the franchise on.
“The Amazing Spider-Man” is far from being a perfect movie. It’s doubtful that audiences will see the franchise rise to the high watermark Raimi stamped on “Spider-Man 2.” Nonetheless, as comic book characters go, Spider-Man has something special that makes him more likable than just about every other comic book hero. For now, Andrew Garfield has the role well in hand.
Rated PG-13. 136 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
X-Men: First Class
As predicted Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are outstanding in their respective roles as young versions of Erik Lensherr and Charles Xavier, respectively. What isn't so predictable is what an impressive job of dynamic storytelling the filmmakers execute for this prequel storyline to Marvel's celebrated "X-Men" comics.
With more than a tad of an anti-authoritarian, anti-militaristic messages, director/co-screenwriter and Matthew Vaughn juggles numerous characters, emotionally palpable subplots, and fascinating visual realities like Robert Altman on steroids. The story moves from '40s era Wolrd War II to the Cold War of the '60s. Kevin Bacon chews some delightful scenery speaking German as Sebastian Schmidt (AKA Sebastian Shaw), a Joseph Mengele-inspired Nazi doctor who physically and mentally abuses the boyhood Erik Lensherr to a horrific degree. Erik can move metal with his mind. This is a big deal. Adult Erik is on a revenge mission to hunt down and kill Dr. Shaw. Erik is pretty much a badass.
Cut to the mutant brother/sister duo of Charles Xavier and Raven (magnificently played by Jennifer Lawrence). Raven is a lusty blue-skinned shape-shifter. Charles is on his way to being a professor of microbiology. He leads with in intellect and ego. She leads with her lips. He is a "telepath" who can read minds with an interactive twist. She can instantly alter he appearance to look like anyone. A CIA investigation into Dr. Shaw's diabolical plans involving nukes brings the existence of mutants to the Government's attention.
An assemble-the-team plotline makes way for a small team of attention-grabbing mutant characters that include the energy-throwing Havok (Lucas Till), sound-blaster Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), adapt-to-survive Darwin (Edi Gathegi), a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde-inspired Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and Angel (Zoë Kravitz) a winged fire-spitter. "X-Men: First Class" is a meaty comic book spectacle movie you can sink your teeth in. John Mathieson's cinematography is gorgeous. The editing team of Eddie Hamilton and Lee Smith keep the action ticking like a Swiss clock.
Rated PG-13. 130 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Chris Hemsworth plays Thor the God of Thunder, but it seems more like he's playing Heath Ledger playing the title character in Kenneth Branagh's visually stunning but narratively confined movie. Blame it on his Aussie accent. Marvel comics once again stubs its toe on a would-be summer blockbuster behind such slip-ups as "Howard the Duck, ""Daredevil," and "Hulk."
As a popcorn movie for the masses, "Thor" is written with as little thematic edge as possible. The Earthbound aspect of the story might as well be set in 1955 as in 2011. Natalie Portman is hardly credible as Jane Foster, a storm research scientist who travels around in a crash truck with her co-workers Stellan Skarsgård and Kat Dennings.
In the far reaches of outer space are where things get interesting. Although the 3-D effects are an afterthought, the production design for Thor's Kingdom of Asgard is fantastic. This is one great looking film. Thor's wily brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is a little too pleased to see Thor exiled from their kingdom by their father King Odin (solemnly played by Anthony Hopkins) after Thor leads an attack against their rivals, the Frost Giants. Said giants have about as much humanity and charm as a rattle snake, but in comic book land we must want our villains painted with a black brush.
For all of its limitations "Thor" entertains. Branagh balances the story's bi-polar settings well. As the director's Shakespearean lineage would forecast, every line of dialogue comes through loud and clear. Ten-year-olds will be blown away by "Thor." For the rest of us, it's a visually thrilling joyride with not much story to back it up.
Rated PG-13. 115 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The inept writing team of Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer have so thoroughly screwed up Tiziano Sclavi's comic book source material that you can barely tell the werewolves from the vampires from the zombies. Flirtations with dark humor ala "An American Werewolf in London" are the closest the movie comes to achieving any traction of entertainment. Brandon Routh falls from his mighty perch as the once-hopeful Superman franchise standard bearer in the role of the title character. The filmmakers feint toward a noir tone for Dylan as a hard-boiled detective living in New Orleans (even if Routh is far too young to pull it off) before regressing into a kitchen sink monster-war storyline. The ever-watchable Anita Briem briefly livens things up as Elizabeth, Dylan's latest client. The murder of Elizabeth's art-dealer father kicks off the action. Sam Huntington gets all the gallows humor lines as Dylan's zombie-cum-lately-assistant Marcus. If you haven't seen "Cemetery Man," director Michele Soavi's 1994 avant-garde adaptation of Tiziano Sclavi's Dylan Dog novel and comic books, I highly recommend checking it out rather than wasting your time on this muddled piece of filmic tripe.
Rated PG-13. 107 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Writer Director James Gunn ("Slither") beats the dead dog of fanboy culture with an idiotic movie that follows in the faux transgressive footsteps of "Kick-Ass." Rainn Wilson rides his indie wave of unjustifiable leading-man status as Frank, an abandoned husband who turns to a life of crime-fighting to rescue his drug-addled wife Sarah (played by Liv Tyler). Stripper Sarah has been willfully kidnapped by a drug dealer played by Kevin Bacon. Talk about slumming. Frank's red-spandex-wearing alter ego "The Crimson Bolt" proves more wrongheaded than the people he attacks with a plumber's wrench. The Crimson Bolt mercilessly bludgeons a couple waiting on line for a movie for "butting in line" after the man joins his mate who was already waiting on line. Ellen Page adds her name to the slum list as Libby, a horny comic book store clerk who susses out Frank's secret identity. Libby naturally imposes herself as Frank's short-skirted sidekick "Boltie." There's even a gratuitous sex scene between Frank and "Boltie" to excite post-pubescent nerdboys with a costume fetish they didn't know they had. "Super" represents another nail in the coffin for the consciously impotent fanboy culture that hijacked Hollywood since the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Avoid this movie like the plague and say goodbye to petulance.
Not Rated R. 96 mins. (F) (Zero Stars - out of five/no halves)
"Slipshod" doesn't begin to express the haphazard approach that its team of screenwriters and clueless director (Jimmy Hayward) take in making a pejoratively "cartoonish" movie. Most upsetting is the utter waste of estimable talents like Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Michael Shannon, and Michael Fassbender. Rather than containing a cohesive storyline with developed characters, "Jonah Hex" is an abomination of disjointed apocryphal elements set during the Civil War. Brolin plays the title character, a Civil War soldier-turned-bounty-hunter who killed his best friend when said friend drew his pistol on Jonah for reasons that remain fuzzy--much like every other glossed-over detail. Said best friend was the brother of one hot-tempered Quentin Turnbull (Malkovich), who, in turn, burned down Jonah's farmhouse with his wife and son in it before branding his own initials in Jonah's right cheek for good measure. The gruesomely disfigured Jonah--he since burned away the initials with an axe blade--is now able to communicate with the dead. As such, Jonah is the only man General Grant (Aiden Quinn) can turn to bring down the nefarious Turnbull, who is not as deceased as previously believed. It seems QT has wrangled up some funky pre-industrial-revolution weapons of mass destruction with which he plans to divide and conquer the nation. Megan Fox is the coldly sexual prostitute Lilah who helps Jonah get his courage up when she isn't getting in dust-ups with less mannered, but more attractive, clientele. There isn't a single reason to see this movie.
Rated PG-13. 81 mins. (D-) (Zero Stars - out of five/no halves)
Iron Man 2
Compared to "Spider-Man 2," the high watermark of comic-book adventure movies , "Iron Man 2" falls short. Still, there's plenty of eye-popping action, snappy one-liners, and Robert Downey Jr. working at the top of his game as genius super hero Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man). Keeping in mind the simplistic formula comic book narrative template indigenous to the form, Justin Theroux's script gets around the bases pretty well. Stark responds to a senate hearing request for him to turn over his "Iron Man weapon," and gleefully refuses. Behind Stark's back, arms dealer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is working on creating similar suits for military use. The arrival of Mickey Rourke as Iron Man's villain du jour Ivan Vanko, presents Hammer with an opportunity to access Vanko's technologically advanced ideas to create drone bots in the Iron Man image. Obligatory romantic tension simmers between Tony Stark and his newly promoted CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), while Scarlett Johansson's legal representative Natalie is brought on board at Stark Enterprises. Natalie's character revelations add some much needed spice and kick to the wholesale destruction on display.
Rated PG-13. 124 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Incredibly, there are 45-year-old film critics who think they have something in common with the 12-year-old fanboys Hollywood considers its primary audience. With "Kick-Ass," fanboy culture reaches its apogee of sloppily diminishing returns. The film is apparently intended to draw a line between adult fanboy poseurs and the under-17 types who can only get into this R-rated picture along with said pandering grown-up. Director Matthew Vaughn ("Layer Cake") oversees this dumb story co-written by comic book writers Mark Millar and John S. Romita Jr. The action revolves around Dave Lizewski, a New York fanboy who decides to reinvent himself as a real-life masked avenger, ostensibly to win the heart of Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), a girl at school who thinks Dave's gay. Dave proves a failure during his first outing as his green-suited alter ego, Kick-Ass. The resulting beat-down requires his body be to surgically reinforced with metal plates. But Dave's physical transformation does little to improve his tactical skills, which require assistance from a Bat-Man wannabe called Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his Robin-knock-off daughter Mindy, a.k.a. Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). Everything about this movie, from its cartoon bad-guys, to its stoopid humor, to its sudden jolts of profanity and gory violence, spells disaster. Here is a movie that parents shouldn't take their kids to see. It is beneath anyone over 18, as well as most people under 18. Garbage.
Rated R. 113 mins. (D-) (Zero Stars)
Since the phenomenal $820 million international success of the first "Spider-Man" movie, Sam Raimi has gone back to the drawing board to improve on the first film's technical shortcomings and, more importantly, bring to life a top-notch script by screenwriter Alvin Sargent ("Ordinary People"). The glorious result is a careful blend of subtext-rich characters responding to one another and their surroundings in a super-action movie topped off with musical grace notes from "West Side Story" thanks to Danny Elfman's understated score. Tobey Maguire once again inhabits the role of the emotionally conflicted web-slinging crime fighter, with Kirsten Dunst returning to her role as Peter Parker's thespian love interest Mary Jane Watson. There are plenty of surprises in this compelling Hollywood cartoon-inspired movie that tops everything else in the genre.
Rated PG-13. 127 mins. (A) (Five Stars)
Another Marvel comic book movie for 10-year-old boys— in the vein of "X-Men" — splashes across the screen with special effects that fall short of exemplifying the source material’s action and its eccentric characters. Astrophysicist Dr. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd – "Black Hawk Down") and his crew of astronauts get caught in a cosmic storm while researching mysteries of the human genetic code under the immediate supervision of billionaire industrialist Victor Von Doom (Juilan McMahon). The crew suffers side effects that leave Reed able to elongate his body; his love interest Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) is able to become invisible at will; Sue’s brother Johnny (Chris Evans) becomes a human torch, and Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) turns into The Thing — a strongman made of stone. In spite of the dubious quality of his "rock" costume Michael Chiklis steals the movie with an outstanding performance. Director Tim Story ("Barbershop") sets an uneven tempo for the embarrassingly clunky script by Michael France ("Hulk") and Mark Frost ("Storyville").
Rated PG-13, 100 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)