Saturday, 21 July 2012

Why Do We Fall?: "The Dark Knight Rises"

Minor Spoilers Ahead

Where to begin with The Dark Knight Rises? While I may be a tad disappointed in it, I can't generalize and say this movie is a disappointment, or a failure. Believe you me, it's not. We get plenty of blockbusters each year that blow stuff up and attempt to be epic. The Dark Knight Rises, on the other hand, despite being too lengthy in some respects, genuinely feels epic. It's scale harkens back to an almost old fashioned idea of what a Hollywood epic once was and can still be and it ends Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy on a well balanced note of conclusion and continuation.

It's remarkable that The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises are all superhero films yet despite that genre label they all seem to exist in a different genre of their own. Also, on the tonal spectrum they're miles apart. The Avengers is probably the most "comic booky" of the three, the one that's most in love its central characters and what it means for them all to finally come together in one movie. It's also probably the funniest of the three and it doesn't forget to give its larger than life very relatable human moments. The Amazing Spider-Man is the sweetest and most intimate of the three. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have a sexy and cute chemistry that sets the groundwork for the tragedy we know is to come. It's a pretty low key movie, more concerned with Peter Parker than Spider-Man in some respects- though it does have some great shots that feel straight out of a  Spider-Man comic book.

The Dark Knight Rises is the darkest of the three superhero films this summer and tonally the one most distant from its comic book origins. This feels like the least "Batmany" of Christopher Nolan's trilogy and I'm still trying to figure out how much of a good or bad thing that is. Nolan's vision from the very beginning, with Batman Begins, was to ground Batman in the real world. It wasn't a completely realistic universe but it played like it was. The same with The Dark Knight, which was a superhero epic within the context of crime drama. Both films achieved an almost perfect balance between creating a contemporary and stripped down universe while still feeling quintiessentially Batman. After making such definitive and mythic statements on Batman, It was no doubt difficult for Nolan to know where to go next. With The Dark Knight Rises Nolan has made the most "real world" feeling of his Batman films yet. All three films in the the trilogy are reflections of America's inner turmoils. In Batman Begins it was a battle against a city's police corruption.  The Dark Knight asked the question of how one fights terrorism in a post 9/11 world. In The Dark Knight Rises, it's economic crisis and how it leads to Gotham being at risk of annihilation. The previous two films were able to relate the mythology of Batman to its conflicts but this film seems the least concerned with Batman's place within its battle.

The Dark Knight Rises begins eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has retired the cape and cowl after taking the fall for Harvey Dent's (Aaron Eckhart) crimes as Two-Face. Nolan has joked that while he hasn't been able to do his Howard Hughes biopic, he has filled that gap by making these Batman films. Bruce certainly isn't too far away from Hughes' type of eccentricity. He's become a recluse and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) mentions that he doesn't have long fingernails like people say. I love the detail of Bruce becoming a recluse because it fits in to Nolan's "real world" style. In reality (he he), it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine Bruce Wayne as a shut in hermit. The fact  he no longer operates as Batman adds even more resonance to the hermit characterization. There's a pretty good joke early on between Bruce and Selina and a certain kind of weapon that I won't reveal.

Selina Kyle is, of course, Catwoman. While Nolan was uncertain of how her character would fit in to his universe, his brother Jonah turned him around. The Dark Knight Rises deals with class divisions and the overthrowing of the rich. Catwoman works perfectly within this context because she's a cat burgular who wasn't born in to privilege. This is in stark contrast to Bruce Wayne, a man who, despite the tragedy of his parents' murder, was always provided for. I liked Hathaway a lot as Catwoman. When Hathaway was first cast I felt it was a little too conventional and "Hollywood" a choice but she does a great job of being funny, sexy and hardedged.

The villain of the film is Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist leader that was trained by Ra's Al Ghul (Liam Neeson), Bruce's former mentor. Bane isn't as diabolically entertaining as Heath Ledger's Joker but nevertheless Bane fascinates me. In many respects he feels the most "realistic" of the villains in the trilogy, making him the most intimidating. I felt a genuine sense of dread as he cuts off Gotham from the outside world and plans to destroy it. Like The Dark Knight, it's a heightened form of terrorist threat but one that's eerily plausiable.

I wish there was a little more of Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon. He seems to spend most of the movie in a hospital and I wish for the last movie there was more of a role for him to play before the final act comes around. I did however love a moment between him and Batman near the end which ties their relationship back to the first film in an unexpected but I feel meaningful way. Joseph Gordon Levitt gives a strong performance as John Blake, a patrol officer who becomes a detective after Gordon is shot. Levitt has a great scene early on with Bale where we get a sense of how much Bruce meant to him as a young orphan since Bruce was an orphan himself, a 'Billionaire orphan" as Blake calls him. I don't want to reveal what else happens in the scene but Blake's knowledge, while it may not make logical sense, makes dramatic and thematic sense.

Michael Caine has a great scene which pays off on a decision Alfred made in The Dark Knight but I felt he and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox also deserved a little more to do. I don't want to reveal too much about Marion Cotillard's character Miranda Tate but I wish she was a little more prominent as well. For a while it seems like she's going to be a new love interest but that''s dropped pretty quickly. She does get to shine towards the end but that's all I'm saying.

And what about the (Bat) man himself, Christian Bale? Bale got a little overshadowed by Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart in the last movie but here he has a little more room to shine. Bale is pretty terrific here, convincingly conveying Bruce's lack of passion for anything in life in both sad and humorous way. He also conveys Bruce's brokeness in Bane's prison. And I have to say- I love the Bat voice. While after The Dark Knight came out it seemed a little ridiculous and over the top, I couldn't do without it. It's both hilarious and, when Batman repeats to Bane something he told Batman earlier, pretty intense and awesome.

Since Batman Begins Nolan has been criticized for his action sequences but I feel Nolan has improved over time in terms of his action sequences. I feel his action work here is arguably his best work yet just in terms of clarity. The fight scenes between Batman and Bane have a real weight to them and unlike the hand to hand combat in Batman Begins you can see Batman fighting. The prologue of the film, involving Bane, aside from being a great homage to the James Bond film Licence to Kill, is also a simultaneously unsettling and exciting feat of zero gravity action filmmaking.

There is a long stretch of time when the film does feel too lengthy and I was feeling that the film just wasn't as memorable as The Dark Knight or had as many great moments as that film- or even Inception. But by the time we finally get to the final action set pieces I was thinking "This is kind of great" and I was totally in to the race against time to save the city.

I said it was probably hard for Nolan to say much about Batman after the last two movies and that Batman didn't completely fit in to the film's main battle. This film seems less about Batman's relationship to Gotham's conflict and more about about Bruce Wayne's redemption, in a physical sense at least. While he comes back as Batman early on in the film, it's not enough. He truly has to learn how to be Batman again and that means having to push himself physically more than ever before.

The ending of the film, without revealing too much, is able to both conclude its story yet suggest a continuation of the Batman mythos in a way that works within Nolan's universe as well as provide a intriguing take on the Batman mythos in general. I'll probably have to give the film another viewing in order to catch some plot points I missed before as well as get a firmer hold on the themes the film is exploring. But after just one viewing I feel The Dark Knight Rises, while maybe not the best of the trilogy, nevertheless concludes the trilogy in a respectful and resonant manner.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Some Thoughts on "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"

With The Amazing Spider-Man being a solid hit, both critically and commercially, it's inevitable that nothing's going to stop a sequel from going forward. I want to talk a little about what plot points and characters will probably be in the film and how I'd like to see them developed.

Mary Jane and Harry Osborn

Both Mary Jane Watson and Harry Osborn were absent from The Amazing Spider-Man, making it the first Spider-Man film the characters didn't appear in. No doubt they'll be in the sequel since Harry's father Norman Osborn will most likely also make an appearance. Harry is Peter Parker's best friend and that adds some dimension to the fact Harry's father transforms in to Peter and Spider-Man's arch nemesis the Green Goblin. Peter also didn't seem to have any real friends in The Amazing Spider-Man aside from Gwen Stacy so it'll be nice to see Peter establish a relationship with another guy. I would have Harry feel a little weird being a wealthy kid at a regular high school. He wouldn't know if people liked him just because he was rich or because he was a decent guy. Peter would be the only one who wouldn't care either way if Harry was rich or not.

If I was introducing Mary Jane in to the mix I wouldn't want it to be an automatic love triangle. I don't want Gwen being "Get away from my man bitch" right off the bat. I would have Gwen and Mary Jane be friends at first, only for things to be complicated when she becomes attracted to Peter. That way, what's at stake isn't merely Gwen and Peter's relationship but her and Mary Jane's as well. Peter would ultimately feel Mary Jane was a little too superfical for his tastes and would eventually reaffirm his love to Gwen. This would be the start of Mary Jane's arc from a carefree and flightly teenager to a mature young woman. Gwen's death in the comics is what brings her and Peter closer together and eventually leads to their romance. Mary Jane needs to be developed really well in order for us to believe Peter could fall in love with her after Gwen's death. The first film established a really strong bond between Peter and Gwen, thanks to strong performances from Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Whoever is cast as Mary Jane will have to have a similar chemistry with Garfiled as well as with Stone. Stone was a fan favourite for the role and was even thought to be playing Mary Jane before it was confirmed she'd be playing Gwen. I'd still give anything to hear Stone purr the line "Face it Tiger, you've just hit the jackpot." It'd actually be funny to have Stone play both roles, with the running joke being that no one notices Gwen and Mary Jane look alike. It'd also be very Vertigo-ish. Hey, Peter already has a Rear Window poster in his room, so it'd be another Hitchcock reference. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is also a big fan favourite and I'd be all for that casting.


A superhero film is only as strong as its villain, particularly for a sequel. After the using a major villain like the Lizard,
who'd be strong enough to carry the movie? I don't think Doc Ock should be used in another second movie. We don't want to rush the black suit/Venom plot line again. Mysterio would be a fascinating choice because he attacks Spider-Man mentally with illusions. Two villains could work, especially if you use the Lizard, who's already been established and has a special connection to Peter.

It's almost inevitable and unavoidable that the Green Goblin will be the villain. Norman Osborn is mentioned but never seen in The Amazing Spider-Man but he'll definitely make an appearance in the sequel. What's already interesting about this interpretation of Norman is he's dying. Curt Connor's research was being used to cure Norman. What cured Connors turned him in to the Lizard and will probably warp Norman's mind and create the Green Goblin personality. In the Ultimate continuity of the Marvel Universe, Norman actually turns in to a Goblin creature rather it just being a mental transformation. It'd be hard to do this since we've already have a creature villain. That is unless they wait until the third movie to have Green Goblin as the villain.

The Death of Gwen Stacy

The moment the Green Goblin shows up in this series, we know that Gwen will have to die. It's not something to look forward to but it feels necessary for the development of Peter's character. Even Stone feels it needs to happen. At the end of The Amazing Spider-Man Peter goes back on his promise to Gwen's father to stay away from Gwen in order to protect her. While Peter's turnaround has received criticism, it's a good foreshadowing of what Peter's recklessness will bring upon Gwen and the guilt he'll feel. Garfield and Stone have already made us love Peter and Gwen as a couple and I feel if done right, Gwen's death will have an emotional impact as powerful as it was in the comics.

The question is, will Gwen die in this film or will her death occur in the third film of what is reportedly going to be a trilogy. I feel her and Peter's relationship will have to be developed a little more before she dies. If that can happen in the second film without being rushed, I think her death in this film could work. You also don't want the series to get bogged down by the same romance. Shifting focus from Gwen to Mary Jane will keep things fresh.

J. Jonah Jameson

Old J.J.J is a very important supporting character in the Spider-Man mythology. He's constantly trying to turn the city against Spider-Man while unknowingly employing the very man he despises. Back when Jameson was going to appear in this film, John Slattery from Mad Men was rumoured for the part. I think if anyone could take the reigns from J.K. Simmons and do Jameson justice it'd be Slattery. Slattery can be the arrogant blowhard who you find yourself loving anyway.

The Untold Story

The Amazing Spider-Man was heavily promoted as "The Untold Story," referring to the mystery behind Peter's parents disappearing when he was a child. While that angle is still in the film, much of that subplot has also been cut out. From my understanding, we were going to get a twist similar to Ang Lee's Hulk film regarding Peter's genetic background. I would love to see a Director's Cut of this film but I have a feeling the cut material will be retconned for the sequel.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

But Those Are The Best Kind: "The Amazing Spider-Man"

I think it was always a controversial decision to reboot the Spider-Man franchise. I remember how anti-climatic it felt in early 2010 when the reboot was announced. It did feel a little soon to be hitting the reset button but now 2 and half years later, there's more of a distance between the previous trilogy and the new film, The Amazing Spider-Man. I also said to myself that I would judge this movie only when I finally saw it. Now that it's out, what do I think? Well, I'm a little divided. It's a pretty solid reboot of the series with a wonderful and sexy romance at the center but I felt there were elements that could have been fleshed out and once it reaches its last act, the action and spectacle is not as thrilling as it could have been.

Essentially, the film is a retelling of Spider-Man's origin story. This film doesn't have the advantage of reboots like Batman Begins or Casino Royale, both of which had a lot of leg room to flesh out their protagonists' origin stories. In Tim Burton's Batman, Bruce Wayne had already established himself as Batman. We got flashbacks to the night his parents was murdered but we didn't see the process of him becoming Batman. I think Batman Begins did a great job of showing us what Bruce Wayne had to go through, mentally and physically, in order to become Batman. Casino Royale, based on the first James Bond novel by Ian Fleming, showed us Bond's first mission, how he earned his 00-status and how he was betrayed by the woman he loved, cementing his cavlier attitude towards women. Both films went behind the mystique of these characters, giving us greater insight than what had come before. I don't think Spider-Man has that same kind of mystique, and since Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man film already gave us pretty much all we needed to know about Spider-Man's origin, The Amazing Spider-Man can't have first dibs on the origin story. I was weary going in to this film of having to see the origin story once again. Surprisingly, despite re-telling this story, the film makes it enjoyable.

 This has to do with how the film's overall atmosphere. While Raimi's first 2 Spider-Man films allowed for plenty of humane and grounded moments, this film takes this one step further. It essentially does for Spider-Man what Christopher Nolan did for Batman- but in its own way that suits the character. While Nolan's Batman films are stripped down and gritty, they're not really grounded. "Grounded" is a word Andrew Garfield, who plays Peter Parker/Spider-Man, used when discussing the tone of the film. He said if him and the filmmakers tried to be too much like Batman, they'd fail. Fortunately the movie understands you can be grounded wtithout being overly serious and gritty.

The film is at its strongest when it's just about Peter Parker and his relationships to the people around him. The relationship that comes through strongest is probably the one between him and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Garfield and Stone are really wonderful together, really making you believe these two kids are falling in love- one of hardest things to do in film. What I liked most about their chemistry was how sexy their romance was, which sometimes is lacking in super-hero romances. As everyone probably already knows, Gwen Stacy dies in the comics. The Green Goblin throws her from a bridge and Spider-Man catches her, breaking her neck. If played pitch perfectly in the next film, it'll truly be one of the most heartbreaking and powerful moments in a superhero film. Garfield does a fine job of not overdoing the brooding young teenage rebel. He brings a lightness of touch to the role that lifts him out any possible stereotype. Stone is a lovely actress and always makes it believable that a man could fall in love with her. But Gwen's not just a delicate flower but a confident young woman who knows what she wants. Denis Leary plays her father Captain George Stacy, who feels that Spider-Man is a dangerous vigilante. Leary is convincing as a strightlaced authorial father figure and he has a nice bit with Stone in the middle. It seems

The main marketing ploy of this film involved telling audiences this was "the untold story," meaning that it would explore the mystery behind why Peter's parents left him. Early in the film Peter discovers a briefcase that belonged to his father Richard (Campbell Scott). He discovers a connection between his father and Dr. Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans), who works at Oscorp (and we all know what Oscorp is!). Conners was his father's partner, and both him and Richard were working on cross genetics within species- experiments that would have allowed Connors to grow back his rght arm. Essentially, Peter helps Connors continue he and his father's work, creating the formula that helps Connors grow back his arm. Of course, Connors is the ultimate "Side effects may include" cautionary tale. Connors, aside from growing back an arm, also grows a tale and becomes a giant lizard.

I would have liked for the film to've played up the relationship between Peter and Connors. This is a man who may have the key to Peter growing up without parents and I wish there were more scenes, even a scene, where Peter really tries to find the truth behind their disappearance. Connors being a mentor figure to Peter would've also been an a good angle to play up. In the comics and animated series Connor also has a wife and son. It would added something to Connors' arc if we saw how his transformation affected his family.

One element of Spider-Man's origin that I think should have been emphasized more is how Peter uses his powers for selfish reasons before he indirectly causes his Uncle Ben's (Martin Sheen) death. While Peter is still responsible for Ben's death, his decision to become Spider-Man seems based more revenge than on knowing "With great power comes great responsibility." I'm okay with Peter wanting revenge but I feel there should have been a moment where he acknowledges the responsibility he has to help people. be fair, he does say it's his job to stop the Lizard. Speaking of Uncle Ben, Sheen brings a good balance of warmth and sterness to the role. Sally Field is underused as Aunt May and I hope she's developed more in the next film.

This film uses more practical effects than the previous trilogy, allowing a more realistic sense of Spider-Man swinging  through the air. I have to say though, while the action sequences are well staged, I don't feel any of them actually blew my mind. That, and all the Spider-Man action seemed jammed in to the final act. The whole final act isn't as well paced as the rest of the film.

Some of the "untold story" aspect of the film seems to have been cut out of the film. I understand this mystery surrounding Peter's parents will probably be an overarching story in a supposed trilogy but I kind of wish the mystery would have been resolved. I think it would have made for a more fully rounded film. So, as I said, I'm divided. Garfield and Stone are so good and the beginnings of Peter becoming Spider-Man started to convince this was probably the best Spider-Man movie yet. And I think that's still a possibility if we get a director's cut of the film. Maybe we have to wait until The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to get that film. Ultimately, this is a solid and enjoyable film that shows potential for the return of the Spider-Man franchise.

P.S- For all the gushing about how "witty" Spider-Man was going to be in this film, he doesn't make that make any more jokes than in the original trilogy.