Saturday, July 21, 2012


Yes, it’s good. Very good, even. I can report that The Dark Knight Rises manages to avoid the fates of X-Men 3: The Last Stand and Spider-Man 3—two superhero movies that followed highly successful, almost universally beloved predecessors and failed miserably to live up to them, ending their respective trilogies with thoroughly disappointing and resounding thuds.

But it’s far from perfect, which keeps it just out of range of being a truly great film. Of the three Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan, I still prefer 2005’s Batman Begins the most, though 2008’s The Dark Knight comes very, very close. The Dark Knight Rises is maybe a notch below.

It’s not bad at all—far from it, in fact. It’s just not quite as strong as the previous two. It’s certainly the messiest. I don’t know whether it’s due to sloppy writing or carelessness in the editing stage, but there are more than a few moments that left me scratching my head, trying desperately to connect the dots. I found myself wondering, for example, how certain characters knew of one another when, from all indications, they wouldn’t (or couldn’t). Other characters managed to escape from a particularly dire situation and suddenly reappeared in full force, with, as far as I could tell, no explanation given. And a few other characters managed to figure out a very closely guarded secret, and I’m really not sure how. (Maybe—hopefully—this stuff will become clearer with repeated viewings.)

The plot itself is straightforward enough. It’s eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. The Batman has not been seen in public since. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is now a recluse. Having sustained multiple injuries during his time as a masked crimefighter, he has a pronounced limp and walks with a cane. He never ventures out of his home, the sprawling rebuilt Wayne Manor, and speaks to no one but his ever-loyal butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine). Bruce’s company is failing, his wealth is dwindling, and he resists overtures of help from beautiful businesswoman Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). He is still reeling emotionally and physically from the events of eight years ago. Meanwhile, a super-strong masked terrorist called Bane (Tom Hardy) arrives in Gotham City and, with his team of loyal followers, sets up shop beneath the streets. From there, he launches a grand scheme that will systematically generate fear, class warfare, murder, and widespread destruction throughout the city. This prompts Bruce to once again take on the role of the Batman, who reestablishes his alliances with Gotham Police Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Wayne Enterprises technical wizard Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). And there are some new players on the scene: maverick police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a gorgeous burglar and con artist. Will they help the caped crusader or contribute to his final downfall? And what is Bane really after, anyway?

The Dark Knight Rises combines elements of several major Batman storylines from the last 25-plus years, including “Knightfall” (the introduction of Bane and his stunning triumph over Batman), “No Man’s Land” (Gotham City is cut off from the rest of the United States and descends into chaos), and the landmark, bona fide classic The Dark Knight Returns (an older Batman comes out of retirement). 

But it’s also very much an organic extension of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, blending the sensibilities of both of those films and interweaving and connecting some of their individual elements within the context of a new story. As a sequel, as the concluding chapter of a saga, and as a movie in its own right, it’s very effective. The stakes are high and the damage done is palpable. During a sequence showing the vast devastation caused by Bane across Gotham City, one can’t help but remember what downtown Manhattan looked like on 9/11/2001.  And Batman is brought to his knees in a manner that I don’t think has ever been seen before in live action.

There are plot twists I didn’t see coming (and one or two that I did), and several genuine “Oh, $#@%!” moments.

But, as realistic a feel as Nolan has aimed for in these movies, there’s also some stuff that really stretches credibility. Without giving too much away, Bane sets out to destroy the reputation of one of the film’s protagonists, bringing to light a dark secret from the past. But after the brutal atrocities that Bane commits in public upon making his presence known in Gotham, I find it very hard to accept that anyone—particularly good, decent, law-abiding citizens—would believe anything he has to say.     

Then again, maybe they didn’t fully understand what he was saying. I estimate that I missed a good 10 percent of Bane’s dialogue, as it was muffled and electronically processed to account for his unique face mask. Some critics have compared the effect to Darth Vader, but that’s not an accurate assessment—I always understood every word that Darth Vader ever said.

The problem is not limited to Bane, though. There are moments when the music and the sound effects drown out the dialogue. I’m not sure whether it’s the film’s sound mix or the acoustics in the theater I was in, but there were moments where I wished I could have turned on the subtitles.

But there was a lot that I liked. I nodded approvingly at Batman’s firm insistence on “no guns” (staggeringly ironic given what happened in Aurora, Colorado). And there was at least one major dramatic payoff that I had been hoping for since Batman Begins—though it didn’t turn out quite the way I thought it would.

The cast is fantastic, from top to bottom. There’s not one weak link in the chain.

Christian Bale does some of his very best work as Bruce Wayne and Batman in this film. And while there’s not a lot of Batman here, the stuff with him is pretty great.

Gary Oldman is, once again, simply wonderful as Commissioner Gordon. No more need be said. 

Michael Caine has less screen time as Alfred this time around, but he has some terrific moments and there’s a point where your heart really goes out to him.

Morgan Freeman also has a somewhat reduced role, but it’s nice to see him again as Lucius. His scenes with Bale are always a pleasure to watch.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who thoroughly impressed me in the wonderful (500) Days of Summer, practically steals the film.

Marion Cotillard is a welcome addition to the series. Oddly enough, she sort of looks like a melding of Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal, both of whom played Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne’s one true love, in the previous films. She’s exotic, enigmatic, and very effective.

Anne Hathaway is downright fantastic, and not just because of the way she looks in the updated Catwoman outfit. She’s a dynamo, turning in one of the film’s best—and certainly most enjoyable—performances, showing different facets to her character and lighting up the screen whenever she’s on it. For my money, she blows away any other actress who’s ever played Catwoman, with the sole exception of Julie Newmar. (True, she’s never actually called Catwoman in the film, but Harvey Dent was never referred to as Two-Face after he got burned in The Dark Knight either.)

As Bane, Tom Hardy definitely has the toughest challenge. Not only does he have to perform throughout the entire movie wearing a mask that covers most of his face, he’s also in the unenviable position of following in the footsteps of the late Heath Ledger, who made an indelible mark as the Joker. Declaring that Hardy lacks Ledger’s charisma, as a number of critics have done, is silly, pointless, and unfair. Bane and the Joker are two very different characters, requiring completely different approaches. Hardy is a good actor and he’s fine in the role. Now, if you want to criticize the choice of Bane as the main villain for this movie, that’s another story—and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. (He certainly wouldn’t have been my pick, as he’s never been a favorite of mine.)

With regard to the ending, which became a hot topic when David Letterman supposedly spilled the beans about it on his show before the movie came out… all I’ll say is, I approve.

I have to admit, The Dark Knight Rises isn’t the movie that I had in my head after I saw The Dark Knight four years ago. It doesn’t go in the direction I thought it would and it’s not the wrap-up to the series that I was expecting—mainly because I wasn’t expecting (or needing) a “wrap-up” at all. Aside from Christopher Nolan wanting his version of Batman to be untouched by anyone else (and he gained enough clout that Warner Brothers acceded to his wish), there’s really no reason why this particular run of films could not have continued indefinitely with other directors, writers, and, if necessary, lead actors. James Bond lived on within the same cinematic continuity despite multiple actors playing him. Yes, they pretty much tried to do the same thing with the original Batman series begun by Tim Burton—Val Kilmer and George Clooney were, for all intents and purposes, playing the same Batman as Michael Keaton—but those films sucked. Ah well. What’s done is done. Another reboot is forthcoming and we can only hope it matches—or even exceeds—what Nolan has achieved with his trilogy.

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2012.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


First, a message: To the folks who brought a baby to the screening I attended, and when that baby started crying incessantly, simply sat there and actually gave a belligerent and hostile response to the usher who eventually went over to them and politely suggested that they take the baby out of the theater until it calmed down—you are low-class, loathsome, vulgar, inconsiderate PIGS.

(Luckily for me, these low-lives were sitting way on the other side of the theater, so their little brat wasn’t TOO much of a distraction. But I felt awful for the people who were sitting near them.)

Okay, with that out of the way…


The Amazing Spider-Man is a flawed but effective film, certainly a big step in the right direction after the bloated, ill-conceived, and poorly executed mess that was 2007’s Spider-Man 3.

The new film is a bit moodier and darker than the previous three directed by Sam Raimi. It lacks some of the over-the-top wildness and the moments of unadulterated fun and joy that Raimi infused into his trilogy. That’s not a criticism, really, just an observation.

Amazing does share some of the same weaknesses as its immediate predecessor, however. First and foremost is the coincidental nature of how the main characters are connected to each other: We learn that Peter Parker’s scientist father was once partners with Dr. Curt Connors, who just happens to be the mentor of Peter Parker’s new girlfriend Gwen Stacy, who just happens to be the daughter of NYPD Captain George Stacy, who just happens to be leading the task force to capture Spider-Man. Admittedly, it’s not nearly as egregious as it was in Spider-Man 3, and, to be fair, even the original Spider-Man comics—as well as one of my all-time favorite films—are guilty of this kind of thing.

Also, there are too many instances of Spider-Man taking off or losing his mask, and I was alarmed by the number of characters who discover his identity, especially this early in his career.

There’s also the matter of Spider-Man’s powers. Just one example: In the first three films, director Sam Raimi was inconsistent in portraying how Spider-Man’s spider-sense worked, but at least there was never any question that Peter Parker had that super-power. That’s not the case in Amazing. In fact, I would argue that it’s implied that the spider-sense isn’t part of Spider-Man’s set of abilities in this cinematic reboot—how else could Dr. Connors, having transformed into the villainous Lizard, sneak up behind Spidey and get the drop on him in a dark sewer tunnel? (Maybe we’ll find out for sure whether he’s got the spider-sense in the just-announced sequel.)

And while I’m on the subject of Dr. Connors/the Lizard, my assessment is that he’s a very underdeveloped character, far more so than Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn/Green Goblin from the original film, or Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2. Part of the problem is that Connors, played by Rhys Ifans, seems so sinister and cold even before he becomes the Lizard that you really don’t feel anything for him. 

You can tell pretty much from the moment you first see him that he’s bad news who’s going to turn out to be even BADDER news. You don’t get a sense of the tragedy of the character. As a result, his character arc is markedly thin—and thus its resolution is somewhat puzzling in the film’s closing minutes.

I also have to say that I’m not overly fond of the new Spider-Man costume. I very much preferred the one that Tobey Maguire wore in the previous three films, as it was very faithful to the comic-book version. I wish the designer on Amazing had stuck a little closer to that.

And then there’s the fact that this film is a flat-out reboot, a full retelling of Spider-Man’s origin. Simply put, it wasn’t necessary. This could have been just a new Spider-Man adventure, picking up more or less where the last one left off, except with new actors playing the established roles—much like has been done time and again with the James Bond movie series. There was no real reason to go back and tell the origin all over again.

Fortunately, however, this retelling differs enough from Raimi’s version that it doesn’t seem overly repetitive or completely redundant. For one thing, the mystery surrounding Peter’s parents—particularly his father—now figures into the origin, which was never the case before, not even in the comics.

And I must note, quite happily, that it doesn’t seem possible that the new creative team will reveal in a sequel that the crook who Peter lets get away in a moment of selfishness and irresponsibility ISN’T the same guy who subsequently shoots and kills Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben. (Raimi, what the hell were you thinking???)

Another deviation from the original film is the fact that, as in the comic-book series, Peter designs and builds mechanical web-shooters instead of having organic ones as a result of the spider bite. This is one of my favorite things about Amazing. For one thing, I’m a big supporter of sticking closely to the source material, so I never fully accepted the organic ones from the Raimi films. But even more importantly, having Peter create the devices shows him putting his science expertise to use. In the Raimi films, we were repeatedly told that Peter was a science whiz, but we never really got to see him demonstrate that in any major way. Good dramatic storytelling requires showing rather than just telling. And this film does a great job showing just how much of a science prodigy Peter is, from designing the web-shooters to helping Dr. Connors solve a highly complex mathematical equation that is the key to Connors’s work.

Another great thing about Amazing is that Spider-Man spouts wisecracks and mocks his opponents, as he’s always done in the comics—and as he almost never got to do in the Raimi films. I just wish there was even more of it here. Hopefully they’ll play up this aspect of his character in the sequels.

But without a doubt, it’s the romance between Peter and Gwen that The Amazing Spider-Man hinges upon, and it’s handled extremely well. This doesn’t really come as a surprise to me, as the film’s director, Marc Webb, also directed the terrific (500) Days of Summer—one of the best films about the ups and downs of young love that I’ve seen in a very, very long time. The chemistry between Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy is palpable.

Speaking of Garfield, I accepted him as Peter from his very first moment on screen—and this is coming from someone who thoroughly loved Tobey Maguire in the role.

Emma Stone is simply ADORABLE. She’s great as Gwen, bringing a powerful combination of intelligence, compassion, wholesomeness, and sexiness. 

As much as I liked Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson in the Raimi films—well, the first two, anyway—I think I actually prefer Stone’s Gwen. I most definitely prefer Stone over Bryce Dallas Howard, who played Gwen in Spider-Man 3. With a backstory that deviates a bit from the source material (here, her mother is very much alive and she has two younger brothers), Stone is not exactly the Gwen of the comics, but she’s darned well close enough. (Or should I say, close enough to the Gwen of the comics as she was portrayed up until recently. Unfortunately, a disturbing storyline published by Marvel a few years back revealed new information about Gwen that retroactively altered her character considerably. I was thoroughly appalled by it, and I’m very disappointed that in the years since, Marvel has not dismissed that story as a hoax or a bad dream. J. Michael Straczynski, what the hell were you thinking???)

The rest of the cast, by and large, is wonderful. Martin Sheen is every bit as effective and likable as Uncle Ben as Cliff Robertson was in the original, and he brings some new dimensions to the character. Where Robertson was more on the saintly side, Sheen is a bit more down to earth, displaying genuine anger and sore disappointment amidst great love and concern when Peter starts failing to live up to his responsibilities.

Sally Field’s Aunt May is a major departure from the character as portrayed by Rosemary Harris in the Raimi films. Harris’s portrayal was very faithful to the version in the original comic books. Taking a cue from Ultimate Spider-Man, a comic-book series launched by Marvel in 2000 that takes place in an “alternate universe” and that relaunched Spider-Man from the beginning for new readers, the rebooted Aunt May is significantly younger and far less frail. In fact, she’s downright feisty and energetic. One thing remains consistent, though: Her devotion to her nephew, whom she loves as if he were her own son. She’s not exactly the Aunt May I grew up reading, but Field does a fine job in the role.

Denis Leary is quite good as Captain Stacy, who was played by James Cromwell in Spider-Man 3. The father-daughter relationship as portrayed by Leary and Stone is very believable and even charming. And without a doubt, Leary has the funniest line in the whole film.

Getting back to the Lizard for a moment—I was pleasantly surprised that he was able to speak in the film. I went in expecting him to be a totally bestial creature, capable of nothing more than growling, snarling, and hissing. In that regard, the filmmakers once again chose to stick closely to the original source material, so no real complaints from me there.

 Some closing random thoughts:

I was pleased to find that Norman Osborn was such a major presence in the film without ever showing up on screen. (Or did he?)

Keep your eyes peeled for a subtle-yet-obvious little moment that foreshadows Doctor Octopus.

There’s some major unfinished business at the end of the movie—including the mystery surrounding Peter Parker’s parents and an integral piece of Spider-Man’s origin. I’m curious to see where the filmmakers go with all of this, but I hope they don’t make the same dire mistakes that Raimi made when he got to Spider-Man 3 and decided to “expand upon” the events of the first film. 

For that matter, stay through the end credits—there’s an extra scene that would seem to set up the next film.

The musical score by James Horner is surprisingly unmemorable. I mean, this guy is responsible for some of my all-time favorite movie soundtracks, but there’s not one bit of music from The Amazing Spider-Man that stayed with me once the film was over—except for the brief piece that Horner lifted from his score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. After all these years, John Williams’s music for Superman: The Movie remains unchallenged as the ultimate super hero score.

I really missed J. Jonah Jameson in this movie, and I very much hope they work him in to the next one. It would be great if they brought back J.K. Simmons to play him—he was fantastic in the Raimi films. But most likely, the filmmakers won’t want to bring back anyone from the original cast. Therefore, I respectfully submit for consideration Ted Levine, the extremely versatile actor who has played characters as diverse as the serial killer “Buffalo Bill” in The Silence of the Lambs and the perpetually harried San Francisco Police Captain Leland Stottlemeyer in the comedy-mystery television series Monk. Just take my word for it, he’d be perfect.

 So, to sum up: Overall, very entertaining. In some ways, an improvement over the Raimi films, in other ways, not. So yes, bring on the sequels—just please don’t f&*k them up.

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2012.