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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Finally, a sequel to Batman Begins!
This film opens up with Bruce Wayne living a solitary life in his mansion. He doesn't come out. No one's seen him. No one even knows he's alive. When we, the audience, do see him it is as a crippled dude using a cane to hobble around. In a later more comical scene the doctor tells us that it's because of the beating he's put his body through that he has various scar tissues and other doctor-ey stuff. Don't worry, the doctor doesn't know he's Batman, so no spoilers were in that part of the review.
The reason everyone assumes that Wayne is living the quiet life is because of a fortune-absorbing project to create an eco-friendly nuclear fission reactor to power Gotham that didn't pan out. Of course, the real reason is that his beloved Rachel Dawes died at the Joker's hands in the second movie, and he's still struggling to figure out what to do with his life now that his plans for the future, which had consisted entirely of marrying her, have been derailed. His retirement is cut short, however, by a revolutionary named Bane who makes his home in the sewers shows up and starts doing Supervillain things. He is an ex-member of the League of Shadows, and is here to finish the work they started in Batman Begins by destroying Gotham's societal infrastructure because it has grown so corrupt that, in the Leagues eyes, it is beyond saving. They've been doing this for millenia, and Gotham is just latest on the list.
The movie is undeniably fun, and I cannot stress enough how much better the action scenes look. In Batman Begins Nolan just shook the camera real hard so that we couldn't see the action. In the Dark Knight he had learned a bit more and held the camera still enough for us to see what was going on, but made me wish he's start shaking it again because of how terrible it looked. Batman's fists had a nasty habit of not actually making contact with his target's faces. In this the camera is both still and it often looks believable when Batman punches someone. There are SOME moments where it gets back to that old 'doesn't look remotely convincing' look, but they are few enough that instead of being annoying they're more like some fun odd comic relief. My favourite part was when he punched a guy's motorbike helmet so hard that the visor disintegrated, but the guy's head doesn't react at all. That, and it didn't look like he punched that hard.
All the regulars are back. Michael Caine still rocks as Alfred. Morgan Freeman has a fun 'gear showing off' scene that has become a staple of the series. Christian Bale delivers his best performance as Wayne/Batman yet, which isn't saying much but he actually does good this time. The new characters are surprisingly well played. I was skeptical of both Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, and Tom Hardy as Bane. Heck, I was skeptical of her as Catwoman back when she was gonna play a similar role in Spider-Man 4, but, astoundingly, she does a great job, and unlike the other two live action movies to feature Catwoman (Batman Returns and the Catwoman movie), she has a good enough script to work with that she becomes a fun character. Bane is also surprisingly fun. Not a villain for the ages, but with his funny voice that was fun to listen to and his establishment as Batman's equal (they were both trained by the League of Shadows, both learned to use fear and darkness as weapons, etc.), he makes a satisfying antagonist. The other notable is Marion Cotillard as a pretty rich environmentalist who lost as much of a fortune on Wayne's fission reactor as he did, and is trying to both woo him and convince him to start the project up. She is unnecessary. Even towards the end when her character is brought into the spotlight all developments involving her are kind of useless.
Which brings me to the 'bad things' part of this review. If I had to choose one word to describe this movie it would be 'bloated'. Sure, the movie is long (2hrs, 45 mins), but it should have been longer, because it never slows down. Even in the sentimental scenes with Alfred the big violins don't stop. They don't even take a half second break. Never. The intensity doesn't die down. We never have a quiet moment with the characters to start REALLY caring. Most of the important plot points are introduced to fast and then moved on from that you either didn't hear it properly or weren't given enough time to feel affected by it. Halfway through the movie the status quo changes radically, and the city changes to an occupied city-state controlled by Banes forces, and instead of trying to shorten the movie by speeding every scene up, I think that they should have chopped it in two and given us a set of Batman movies released a few months apart (like the Matrix or Pirates of the Caribbean), thus allowing us to become more involved in the story. That's my only real complaint, but it applies so thoroughly to the WHOLE movie that it's my whole reason for not giving it a higher rating.
All that said, I really liked this movie. I finally got my sequel to Batman Begins, and I got to see a fun movie in the meantime. I wasn't disappointed. I just wished that I could hear it and feel it more.
The Avengers (2012)
An Impressive Accomplishment
This movie is all about the hype. Its existence is based on four years of gradually building anticipation in the nerd community, so that now some of us are at the breaking point waiting for what we all hope could be the perfect movie. The big question on all of our minds is 'was it worth the wait?' My response to that question is yes. The Avengers is shockingly good in every way.
The plot concerns Loki, god of mischief, who, after receiving a magic death wand from some aliens (yeah, that's about how much they tell you about it), comes to earth, steals the mysterious otherworldly megabattery the Cosmic Cube, last seen in Captain America, from the supersecret spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D. He kidnaps a few of their scientists and agents, and takes off. Concerned, Nick Fury, the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., played by a Very Awesome Samuel L. Jackson with no hair and an eye patch, wants to begin rounding up earth's mightiest heroes to combat the threat. The government argues that it doesn't make sense to round up civilians who happen to have acquired powers and expect them to act as a dependable military task force. Fury argues that they don't have a dependable military taskforce equipped to handle a God and an invading alien army, so he goes ahead and does it anyway.
His heroes consist of Iron Man, who has just completed work on an energy efficient tower that he can't seem to stop talking about, the true significance of which doesn't come to light until the very end of the movie. Captain America, who is understandably depressed since waking up seventy years after he last fell asleep, and is trying to figure out if he has any place in the new world. Thor, who is obviously having some personal issues because he feels responsible for his brother Loki's actions. Black Widow, who is technically not an Avenger, but just a really talented agent who hangs out with them, and Hawkeye, who is also just an agent, but happens to be really good with a bow, so he also gets to hang out with the Avengers.
I cannot express in words just how impressed I am that each character gets enough screen time to satisfy both the needs to see them and to have them grow in complexity. Somehow, over the course of its two hour run time it manages to do justice to each of its characters simultaneously by bouncing their personalities off one another.
The action is plentiful and awesome. The first half to three quarters of the film the heroes are fighting one another as their confliction agendas bring them to trade blows, and that is entertaining. We get to see Hulk fight Thor, Thor fight Iron Man, Black Widow fight Hawkeye, Black Widow running in terror from Hulk, etc. This is all unbelievably good fun, and they all get to show off the full brunt of their powers because the other heroes are tough enough to take it. When they finally do make peace with one another and get down to fighting the bad guys there as an endless wave of faceless aliens for them to tear in two/smash/electrocute/explode/shoot/whatever without you caring about the deaths that come as a result.
Now for the bad parts, and there were a couple. The opening action sequence when Loki destroys the underground S.H.I.E.L.D. base is too long and too boring. Also, Loki gives these weird speeches throughout the movie about how freedom is stifling, or something, and they didn't make sense given his character. He doesn't need more motivation than wanting to be a king to be doing what he's doing, and at the very least they could have done a better job explaining his feelings about 'freedom.' I think I figured it out anyways, but I'll leave the interpretation to each audience member. Also, there is a great scene where Thor is defending Loki's honor in the face of the understandable accusations coming from his teammates, only to insist that Loki's only his adopted brother two seconds later for the sake of a gag. It bothered me A LOT because it was really interesting to see him still caring for his wayward family member despite his wrongdoings. And what was with that alien Loki was talking to? The one with the two thumbs. It looked, moved, spoke, and was filmed like something out of a bad sixties sci-fi movie. And I mean the really bad kind. In a movie filled with awesomeness, it stood out like a sore thumb. Or two sore thumbs, given its bizarre anatomy. SPOILER ALERT! SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE MOVIE! At the end of the movie when Doctor Selvig announces that while under Loki's mind control he maintained enough presence of mind to install a failsafe kill switch into the portal generator, I couldn't help but feel that the screenwriters had taken the lazy way out. The fact that he did that makes all of their collective actions basically irrelevant, and it undermines both their superiority and their heroism in no small way. Essentially they won the war because some guy didn't mind control very well, and that's really lame. This was the weakest point in the film, and I feel very strongly that there's no particular reason that Hulk couldn't have just smashed his way through the unsmashable force field.
In the end, the movie is unbelievably good fun, and surprisingly satisfying given the wait. It homages the characters and the stories of all the movies that have come before, and it leads into whatever comes next very well. Oh, and stay after the credits. There's an awesome clip for anyone patient enough to wait. And I don't mean the one with the aliens. I mean after the longer credits.
A Surprisingly Well Crafted Drama
Rise of the Planet of the Apes follows that timeless, age-old story we've all seen a thousand times before of a boy with a distant father getting his first pet, bonding with his pet, bonding with his father, and then trying to stop his pet from taking over the world.
Okay, so that part about the age-oldness and the pet and the dad and stuff is only partly true, and all in jest. The fact of the matter is that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is, despite being the quadrillionth instalment in a tired franchise, almost entirely original. True, I haven't seen any of the old ones (which I imagine both enables and impares my ability to enjoy this film), but I can say that this movie carves interesting territory by effectively portraying the evolution of a character without using any speech to tell the audience what he is thinking.
The movie originally follows Will, a scientist of some kind trying to cure Alzheimers because his father is suffering from the disease. Through a series of hijinks, he ends up the proud owner of a hyperintelligent ape whose mother's exposure to the drug during chimp testing endowed him with a brain capable of as much more then his fellow apes than a completely mentally stable person's brain is compared to someone deep in the depths of Alzheimer's. More hijinks occur, and Caesar (the ape) ends up stuck in a primate shelter run by sadistic animal haters. He develops a distaste for being treated as inferior when he knows he's more than a dumb animal, so he decides to build an army and take over the world.
Telling more than that would be spoilers, though I'd love to discuss some of the juicier plot points that get introduced later in the film. The movie's plot is complex and solid. The action scenes are refreshingly necissary, and each one adds to the plot. The acting is all good, though I found myself wondering if James Franco wasn't actually trying to play the distant chemist who can't connect and was just suffering from beign a distant actor who can't connect in real life. I imagine people will take both sides of the debate, but I'll stay neutral. Caesar is a fascinating character, and his bitter evolution is fascinatingly told even if it's sometimes hard to watch because you feel so sorry for him. One thing of very particular note is that although the main human character is given an eye candy girlfriend, she doesn't wreck the movie like so many eye candy girlfriends tend to because she actually contributes to the conversations and interacts with the other characters well.
On the flipside, the movie isn't quite perfect. The first half is a little too fast paced, and there definitely needed to be more scenes of Casar in Will's house acting as part of the family, and the last third doesn't have quite enough to tell me how the apes are gonna function in the real world, but in both the first and third acts' defenses, the second act where Caesar raises his army is the one the filmmakers poured their souls into, so it's what matters most. Also, the CGI is very remarkable, but is not quite real enough for my tastes, and is a bit distracting at times. The lead Primate Shelter keeper guy never receives enough explanation, and I felt continuously confused as to why someone who hates apes that much wouldn't just get a job somewhere else.
That's about all there is to say. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a lovingly crafted film made by someone obviously quite in love with the franchise who was bent on showing the world just how cool the rather ridiculous concept really is. The last time I saw a movie set up a sequel that well was when Harry stood in front of the Goblin's lair at the end of Spider-Man 2, and I cannot wait to see how this film series (which the screenwriters say is intended to be a trilogy) progresses, though the end of this movie told me enough to left me satisfied that the people behind the film actually do have a good explanation for the apes' ultimate conquest awaiting us in future installments.
Side Note: Speaking of Spider-Man, this movie reminded me of the Spider-Man films several times. James Franco is the obvious catalyst, but it continues when the people have extended conversations about human trials of a wonder drug designed to enhance performance and is solidified when you see the apes leaping very much like the Web Slinger around trees and such.
A Fun Movie That Makes Up For the Other Disappointments of 2011
Captain America is a fun time. It is not without it's flaws, to be sure, but ultimately the movie is defined by a sense of cheesy patriotism and optimistic bravado that does not ask you to take it seriously, promising that if you comply you will have a fun time. I complied. I had a fun time.
It embraces it's WWII setting wholeheartedly, and that is what gives this movie most it's charm for anyone with the vaguest knowledge of history. There is a great scene where Steve is in a movie theater watching a propaganda reel advising all young men to enlist and join the army, and the camera pans out to show how emotionally inspired all the women in the theater are (there are few men, because they've all enlisted), and a later one where a pre-hero Captain America tours the country doing a stage show where he tells everyone to "Buy war bonds; each bond you buy is a bullet in the gun of a good man" (or something like that). All through the film are scattered little "I Want You" posters, some featuring Uncle Sam and some, rather creatively, featuring Captain America in his place. The end credits are made of the most famous of real propaganda posters, and, coupled with excellently trumpet-bound cheesy music, this all adds up nicely to a good half of the movie being an homage to the time period from whence the comic book character was born.
Saddly, the other half of the movie is more confused. The villains use laser weaponry, and Captain America's shield is of course composed of more solid metal than anything we have today, and Howard Stark shows off a hovercar. These technological disparities were jarring, and the movie would have been better suited to featuring only the characters using standard issue WWII weapons, as it would have heightened the charm. I make it sound worse than it is perhaps, because none of the above things are bad, but they certainly weren't as good as the propaganda-ey parts.
Also, this movie's standpoint on women is exploitive, and not very well handled exploitation at that. On the one hand we have the chorus girls dressed in skimpier outfits than anyone would have dreamed of in the forties on whose barely fishnet-clad legs the camera hovers a bit obsessively during the war bonds promotion sequence. This is degrading and unrealistic. On the other hand we have Peggy Carter, the above mentioned love interest who is nothing more than a ploy to appeal to feminists. She is always shown to be more decisive, more physically capable, and generally more masculine than the men around her despite wearing high heals. She is seemingly above having to dress according to regulations (there is a hilarious shot of her running alongside a bunch of similarly ranked soldiers where they all wear uniforms and she a leather jacket), and is in nearly every other scene without contributing to the story in even one of them. Her character is obviously included to conform to the inane message Hollywood seems so bent on cramming down our throats that women can be feminine and pretty but still do man things, and in the end the message I would like to cram down their throats is that women don't need to be good at the same things men are good at to be equal to men.
The villains too need a little work. The Red Skull, the nemesis of Captain America, is introduced well in his first scene, but as the movie went on I found myself asking 'what's so special about him? Anyone can fly a plane, why is it so scary that he happens to be doing it?' Sure he was superhuman (if only slightly so), but him being superhuman never really ends up factoring in to whether or not he can order guys around, which is all he really does. His Cosmic Cube, a weapon/battery of immense power, was never explained well enough for my fellow audience members, even if I already knew what it was from my study of comic book lore, and I can't help but feel it was unfair to them. And where are the Nazis in all of this? The film would have benefited hugely from a scene or two of Captain America helping out at D-Day and such instead of just the bizarre montage it had of him blowing up H.Y.D.R.A. equipment. In particular I would have loved to see a scene or two revealing what Hitler thought of Captain America. No such scene exists, however, and I can't help but feel like the opportunity to marry history and the comic book world was lost.
Still, I make this movie sound worse than it is. Or do I? In the end, this film had some severe issues that nearly wrecked almost every second of screen time, but somehow the cheery atmosphere won me over and triumphed over these problems. The momentum of the film and the fact the plot was almost constantly being advanced, even in the action scenes, gave it a wondrous sense of adventure, and is one of my new favourite war films and possibly superhero films to boot, and I am particularly impressed with how good it was considering how difficult to adapt a character Captain America is.
P.S. Stay after the credits: there's a rather brief and flashy trailer for the Avengers. It is disappointing in some ways, but I'm willing to cut them some slack because of the fact that Avengers is still filming.
A Challenge to Those People Who Thought This Movie 'Made Sense'
Alright, so here's the thing; yes, it was cool that there was all that complexity. Yes, it was cool that there were so many layers of thought both on screen and off to what was going on. Yes, it was cool that Chris Nolan managed to make something unique and fairly independent in just one movie that was complex enough to account for a whole trilogy of movies in almost any other genre. But here's the thing; it had some rather alarming logical leaps that I could not get over.
1.The Projections; Okay, so the things that inhabit the streets of the person's subconscious are manifestations of the various components of their brain as evidenced by the fact that when the characters need to find something out about the dreamer's perception of someone else they just follow that manifestation in the dream. Makes sense, because that thought does what the dreamer thinks it would do, not what the real person would do. When I saw that I went 'wow, that makes sense! Clever!', but then towards the end of the movie they say 'nevermind, they're just projections; they don't actually mean anything, and parts of their minds aren't being killed.' That was a little too convenient for my liking.
2.The Totems; WHY doesn't the top fall over in the dream world? WHY does it keep spinning perpetually? Everything else obeys the laws of basic physics, so why wouldn't that? That was probably the dumbest thing I've seen in a movie this year; there wasn't even an attempt made to explain it. I can honestly say this was just as bad as 'only a prime can kill a prime' in Trasformers 2.
3. The Architect/Dreamer Relationship; Why can only the architect choose the world they enter? And why is the only person who 'projects' characters into this world the person that's 'the dreamer'? They are ALL dreaming, every single one of them, so they should ALL be both altering the world they're in and the characters in it. And why can't the projections do anything cooler than be normal guys with guns? If I detected intruders in my mind I'd summon a nuke or Godzilla or Optimus Prime to get them out, not boring henchman who probably wouldn't be able to get the job done anyways.
4. The Script, and it's supposed 'surprises' I felt kind of talked down to when they honestly expected it to be a surprise when you discovered that Molly's death was as a result of Cobb's previous inception. If ANYONE made it through that movie without figuring that out they deserve to be jettisoned into the sun for their stupidity. I caught on the moment he mentioned that inception was possible.
5. Waking Up/Dying in the Dream When you die in the dream world you come back up a level towards consciousness, as evidenced by the fact that they wake up when they get shot in the face in the first scene. But wait! When they die in the dream you actually go down to limbo as evidenced by that happening to the oriental guy, which sucks because that's where it's just 'pure subconscious' and you wake up a vegetable. But wait! You actually aren't in an endless limbo because Cobb and Molly went there once, but you still wake up a vegetable. But wait! You actually don't wake up a vegetable because Cobb and Molly didn't when they killed themselves on the train tracks. But limbo is still bad.......right? Because you can't get out without becoming mentally handicapped, but if you can kill yourself to get out at any time just like a normal dream then why is limbo even bad? And isn't inertia supposed to wake you up? Technically the van falling off the bridge should have woken them up, or even it rolling, not it hitting the water. If the force of hitting the water is what woke them up, then shouldn't anything like a slap to the face do it?
In the end the movie suffered from the EXACT same things The Dark Knight did, and that is Chris Nolan's conflicting desires to make something believable and for sensationalism, and both cancelling out the other. If you wanted to compare it to the other obvious similar franchise,The Matrix actually is believable. Oh, yeah, now that I think of the matrix, how does a tiny needle plugged into their wrist plug them into an alternate reality in Inception? The base of the skull made sense, this is just silly. People keep saying this is the next Matrix, but the difference here is that literally twenty views later everything in the Matrix STILL makes sense, and I punched holes in this latest Leonardo Decrapio movie in one sitting. Pathetic.