Monday, August 27, 2012

Review: The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises. The Dark Knight Descends. The Dark Knight Trilogy is over.

No, it wasn't the best of the three films by far and indeed, it may have been the worst. That's not to say that it was "bad," just that it didn't amaze and enthrall me like the first two films.

Batman Begins (2005) amazed me just because I've always been disappointed with all of the live-action Batman films prior to this one. Up until "Begins," I thought the best screen version of Batman was the WB animated series from the 1990s. After seeing Bale's Batman, the animated series (still quite good) seemed like just a cartoon.

"Batman Begins" showed everyone that superheroes could be "adult fiction" and reminded us all that Batman was supposed to be "dark".

The Dark Knight (2008) totally blew away "Begins." Part of it was the more realistic cityscapes. Chicago was used instead of a fictionalized Gotham and I absolutely loved the Hong Kong sequence. Nolan totally expanded Batman's universe from his first film and the Dark Knight became infinitely more "real." Of course, Heath Ledger's "Joker" completely stole the show, making his performance and this film a legend in fantasy film making.

That's quite a build up to "Rises" and there's always the danger that when you fly so high, there's a big fall is coming.

I wouldn't say "Rises" crashed and burned, but it had really big boots to fill after "TDK" and it didn't fill those boots.

I was worried that in trying to include Catwoman, Bane, Talia al Ghul and (briefly) Ras al Ghul, the film would suffer from too many villains and not enough development. That really wasn't the problem here and except for how Ras was handled, I thought the balance between all of the main "bad guys" was handled fairly well. It was just that all of the little puzzle pieces didn't quite fit together.

In TDK, all of the story elements, the characters, every little detail, fit hand and glove. Everything was in place. Nothing was wasted. The film was very "organized." That's not another way of saying "predictable" or "boring" but "efficient" and "seamless". I didn't spend any time analyzing the film while watching it, I just watched and enjoyed.

Not so with "TDKR".

All of the jumping around from place to place to place, and from flashback to flashback to flashback was distracting, distracting, distracting. I think I managed to keep up, but it was an effort and watching a story shouldn't be about trying to figure out what the filmmaker is saying, but allowing the narrative to flow over you like a dream.

The film is watchable. It's good. It just could have been better and maybe even a little shorter.

Stuff I liked (warning: Spoilers): 

Anne Hathaway nailed it as Catwoman/Selina Kyle. Smart, agile, sexy, edgy, and even just a bit vulnerable.

Marion Cotillard played Talia al Ghul after all. Good. She needed to be part of the trilogy, though I'm sorry she and Bruce couldn't have forged more of a history before the end.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Blake. He's the obvious heir apparent to the "Mantle of the Bat" and even if I hadn't read other accounts of the film before finally seeing it, this would have been obvious from the start. I think we all knew that Batman wasn't going to survive the end of this film, but the hope of a "Dark Knight" type character had to be kept alive. There is no Gotham City with out a protector in black.

The Bane/Talia connection. I more or less liked this because I didn't see it coming. I also didn't like it because the explanation of Bane, Talia, Ras, League of Shadows, and why Gotham was brought to the edge of total destruction was not only rushed and forced, but it didn't really make a terrific amount of sense.
And yet, the weirdness of this "love affair" between two cold-blooded killers abruptly made them both less than monsters and almost human.

Bruce's secret isn't invulnerable. Blake figures it out just by seeing Bruce's face and knowing there's a Batman. Of course it was also because Blake's history parallels Bruce's, so one lost, hurt, and angry child recognizes another. Bane also figures it out which is terrifying. It's one thing that Blake knows because the guy just oozes "trust me" and "I'm a good guy," but Bane! It's a horrible thing when your worst enemy knows your every secret, turns you into a cripple, and then tosses you into the pit of hell.

Stuff I didn't like: 

Ras al Ghul was a hallucination that lasted a couple of minutes tops. So what?

It is true that Bruce's initial return as Batman was supposed to be a failure. Alfred even pointed out that he wasn't actually Batman anymore, just Bruce in a costume. Bane proved this by beating Batman to a pulp and breaking his back (which was demanded because that's what Bane is supposed to do to Bruce). But it's like I didn't believe it. The tragedy of Batman's defeat would have been much greater if he had regained more of his "Batman-ness"; if we could have believed he had a chance against Bane before being destroyed by him.

Heck, the theme of the film is even hope before disaster. There was no hope when Batman first faced Bane. We all knew he didn't have a chance.

Fusion reactor can be turned into a bomb. Yawn. OK, convenient plot device (literally) so Bane could have access to an atomic bomb without having to sneak it in, but first of all, to me, nuclear fusion reactors were just too fantastic for this movie and there was no build up...just Wayne blowing half his fortune to build one, then mothballing it because it maybe could be turned into a bomb (like nuclear fusion wouldn't be dangerous enough anyway). It was just too odd. It didn't fit.

Hardly anyone seemed like themselves. Bruce, Alfred, Fox, Gordon all seemed like they were sleepwalking through their roles. All of the personality, the humor, the "themness" of these characters was missing. It was as if they couldn't wait to finish filming their scenes so they could go off and do something else. The heart of the Batman films was just plain missing.

Robin. Oh for Chrissake, Robin? Blake's "real" name had to be Robin? Yuk.

Change "Blake" to "Drake" and you already have a Robin connection without having to be obvious or dumb.

Occupy Wall Street on steroids was another obvious element that was shoved down the audience's throat. What would happen if the "occupy" movement turned violent? Get all the 1%ers, try them, and kill them. Kill the police or otherwise get rid of them. Return the "power to the people." Really? If it actually worked out the way the film predicts, then we have some idea of why every revolution ends with the radicals becoming "the man."

Bruce has a medical exam before returning as Batman the first time. His body is shot. Given the description of his injuries, there's no way in hell he could have come back as the Dark Knight, especially after his back injury. No amount of "prison workouts" fixes no cartilage in the knees, elbows, and shoulders. Replacement surgery fixes that but he'd still never be Batman again. A Lazarus Pit fixes that too, but I'll get to that in a minute.

I sort of loved and hated the "happy ending." I guess I always wanted Bruce to survive because it creates the vain hope that if "Robin" or "Nightwing" or whoever really needs a hand, Batman would be there to back him up. I also like a happy ending just because the part of me that believes in justice thinks good guys should win in the end and "live happily ever after". On the other hand, it was also kind of sappy and given the knowledge of Alfred's annual vacation plan we are given earlier in the film, we all knew it was going to happen.

Stuff I wished for: 

Ras al Ghul really coming back. Given the plot and direction of the story, the film would have become quite a bit more complicated had Ras shown up alive, but competing with his daughter and the man he hated more than Bruce for control of the League of Shadows would have been an incredible showdown.

The Lazarus Pit. Part of me thought that Bane would actually kill Batman, that it would happen further into the film, and that a lovesick Talia (yeah, the film would have to be a lot different) would take Bruce's body to a Lazarus Pit to resurrect him. It would have been absolutely cool. The movie would have to be completely rewritten but it would have been totally awesome!

I could go on and on about the film. It's a flawed work of art. I'll be bitching for weeks about it. I'm sorry it ended this way. But for better or for worse. it ended. The ride is over.

Nolan used TKDR to try and pull together all of the perceived "loose threads" created in the first two films but particularly in "Begins." He tried too hard.

But if DC plans to make a Justice League film, the Dark Knight must not rise again, but be reinvented. What will he be like then?

Monday, August 13, 2012

DVD Review: The Expendables

I suppose with the theatrical release of The Expendables 2 just days away, it's about time I got around to seeing the original Expendables film (2010). I had always wanted to see it and heard that it was a good action film, but just never got around to it.

I rented the DVD without doing any sort of research on the film. I didn't talk to anyone about it and whatever "buzz" had been going on two years ago about this movie, didn't stick in my memory so I really had no idea what to expect.

I was disappointed. Yes, of course there was a lot of action. Lots and lots of shooting, explosions, throats being cut, dropping F-bombs, but somehow it just lacked something. I don't know what exactly.

Maybe a direction beyond an extremely high body count.

The film starts out right in the thick of things with Ross's (Stallone) team of mercenaries setting out to rescue some hostages from Somali pirates. The character Gunnar Jensen (played by Dolph Lundgren) is established as a dangerous rogue (even for a member of a team of hyper-violent mercs) right from the start, so I expected bad things from him and he certainly delivered.

The film seemed like standard action fare at this point, but the problem happened when the movie dared to develop some actual characterization for Ross's number two man Lee Christmas (played by Jason Statham). There wasn't any. After the film's first mission, Christmas (yeah, the ridiculous names for many of the characters was a distraction, too) rides off to find his girlfriend, who he hasn't seen in over a month, and he's shocked...shocked to find she's with another man. He avoids beating her or the other guy up (on this occasion) and rides off, wounded but proud. But I found I really didn't care. It was a cosmic "so what."

I know it's tough to pull off character development in an ensemble piece because you've got a lot of people to cover, plus you have to actually insert some action in the movie, but in this case, why bother? Of course, Statham's strength never was actually the ability to act as much as it is to create (or simulate) mayhem. This problem trickled down to the other principle actors.

I stopped looking for real acting ability from Stallone a long time ago, though many of his action films are watchable and even fun, but it seemed like it was impossible to make a real emotional connection with anyone associated with the Expendables...

...except Tool (played by Mickey Rourke). Stallone gave Rourke the job of defining the film's purpose and (literally) soul. There's a sequence (sadly not quoted at where Tool is recounting to Ross a mission they were on many years before. At one point during the op, Tool says he was watching a woman on a bridge. They made eye contact and Tool knows that she's going to commit suicide. His response was to turn and walk the other way leaving her to die. Tool says that if he had saved her instead of walking off, not only would he have saved her life, but he'd have saved his soul. This is the only real emotion and sense of poignancy the film managed to convey and it only lasted about five minutes.

Beyond being the best acted scene in the entire film, you don't actually realize that it is the scene of the film until the climax, when Ross is rescuing the film's female lead Sandra (played by Giselle ItiƩ) from the villain Munroe (played by Eric Roberts). At the point where Munroe either escapes with his hostage Sandra or dies, he screams at Ross that they're both alike, that they both have dead souls (supposedly a requirement for being a long-term merc or a drug dealing ex-CIA scumbag). Munroe is subsequently blown away and stabbed simultaneously, Sandra is saved, and Ross establishes for the audience that his soul remains intact.

But it was a stupid conversation and in real life, it never would have happened. Munroe wouldn't have given a damn about anyone's soul and even if he did, it was a dumb time to wax philosophical. I know that it was important for the film to actually say this stuff and it's how we can apply Tool's lament to Ross, but I just didn't "feel it." Sorry, Sly. Frankly, I think it was the worst part of the film...the attempt to say something more than "I'm a mindless action film...have fun." Stallone tried to imbue his movie with something beyond blowing up buildings and turning people into chunky salsa and failed. More than anything, that's why I was disappointed with The Expendables. Stallone took the one good scene in in the whole film and wasted it.

The cameos. This film marked the first time movie tough guys Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared in the same film and in the same scene (although Willis and Schwarzenegger never appeared in the same frame). Yeah, it was bitchin' just to see them together, but it was an obvious set up for the sequel, since Schwarzenegger's character Trench wasn't necessary for the scene.

After Gunner (Lundgren) tries to kill Yin Yang (Jet Li, and would they please get rid of these stupid code names) in a really nasty way and is shot by Ross for his troubles, I was disappointed to see Gunner alive and with the gang at the end of the film. OK, keep him alive for the sequel as an antagonist or as the lost soul who redeems himself by heroically saving the team before he dies, but don't just reinsert him into the group after he betrayed them and tried to kill one of their own.

This is definitely one film I'm glad I didn't spend money on to see in the theatre. I'm convinced more than ever that I won't see The Expendables 2 until it's released to DVD and then I might wait a couple of years before I get around to viewing it. Yeah, I like a good action film and the action parts were really good if mindless mayhem, murder, and torture (at one point Sandra is "waterboarded" by Toll Road, played by Randy Couture), but in spite of Stallone's best intentions, The Expendables just didn't have a soul.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Save Me, Supergirl!

Please, please, please save me!!!

Sorry. Just saw the image and had to say that. Thanks.