Monday, July 23, 2012

movie review: DARK KNIGHT RISES

The Dark Knight Rises is an excellent and suspenseful Christopher Nolan action film. But is it a "Batman movie"?  Not quite.   I can see why Nolan originally wanted to title his third movie Gotham before Warner execs demanded a title to closer link it to the Heath Ledger installment.  This movie is more about various characters in Gotham City than it is about Batman.  Of the three Nolan films, I'd say Batman gets the least amount of screen time in this one, even though in Batman Begins Batman doesn't even appear until the second half of the movie (of course I am treating "Batman" and "Bruce Wayne" as separate characters in this analysis).

The film opens (after a quick but effective glimpse of a Harvey Dent memorial) with a James Bond style sequence of Bane abducting a Russian scientist from an airborne plane.  Bane is a C-list villain in the comics, and in this movie, he is adequate.  But sorely missing is the charisma of an A-list villain like the Joker, played with the charisma of an actor like Heath Ledger.  Tom Hardy plays the character in a rather cardboard cutout way.  With his anesthetic mask on constantly, and an overdubbed Darth Vader voice, any stuntman really could have played the part.  Nolan could have brought back the pro-wrestler who played Bane in Batman & Robin, and just had Hardy dub in the voice.  It wouldn't have mattered.

From there we get caught up with what Bruce Wayne has been doing since the last movie.  Now partly crippled, he has become a Howard Hughs style recluse.  Selina Kyle (never called "Catwoman" in the film), poses as a maid at a charity event at Wayne Manor, and steals Martha Wayne's pearl necklace and Bruce's fingerprints.  Bruce confronts her, and she escapes.  Anne Hathaway as Selina is good but lacks that something special that made previous Catwomen like Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether, and Michelle Pfeiffer iconic.

We are introduced to all the other characters in the Gotham ensemble piece, like Joseph Gordon Levitt's rookie cop John Blake, veteran cop Foley played by Matthew Modine,  the Animated Series' Dagget played by Ben Mendleson, a priest who runs an orphanage played by Chris Ellis, and Miranda Tate played by Marion Cottliard, who as expected, turns out to be Ra's al Ghul's daughter Talia.

Jim Gordon gets shot in an encounter with Bane, and Blake goes to Wayne Manor to reveal to Bruce he knows he's Batman. How he figured this out is kind of murky.  I think it had something to do with him recognizing the big boil on Bruce's right eye is the same as the one Batman has under his eye makeup.  Bruce, in a ski mask, visits Gordon in the hospital, who urges him to come back as Batman.

Selina robs more people, Bane continues his master plot, and lots of other stuff goes on.  Finally, Batman returns (funny how his crippled leg is cured with a simple leg brace) to stop one of Bane's terrorist acts.  This scene is very good and well done.  Some more stuff happens, including Alfred quitting, then Batman and Bane have another fight, which ends with Bruce having his back broken and being dumped into a pit on the other side of the world. After this, the movie starts to get a little boring.  Things pick up momentarily when Bane implements his terrorist act on a football stadium.  He gives a speech that sounds eerily like a Barack Obama speech, albeit in a Darth Vader voice.  Bruce watches this all from the pit (ain't cable great).

In a nod to real life events like the Occupy movement, the inmates take over the asylum, so to speak, as Bane threatens to destroy Gotham with a nuclear bomb. Cillian Murphy as Johnathan Crane conducts a court trial against citizens, making the Scarecrow the only villain to appear in all three Nolan movies. Bruce ultimately escapes the pit (miraculously healed of all his injuries without any hospitalization... who needs medical insurance!), becomes Batman again to lead a city wide riot of cops vs Occupiers in broad daylight.  Hey, wait... Batman's not supposed to appear in daylight.  Imagine the outcry if Tim Burton would have done that.  But Nolan gets a pass it seems. Bane is defeated by Catwoman shooting him with a gun on the Batcycle.  Hey, wait... Bane's not bullet proof.  This means, the state police or army could have had a sharpshooter take Bane out at any time. Major plot hole.  Batman uses the Batcopter (which several times in the movie the point is made it does not have an auto pilot) to fly the bomb over the ocean, sacrificing his own life, after tipping Gordon off to who he really is.  A memorial is held for Bruce, and a statue is erected to Batman. Then Lucius Fox realises the Batcopter did have an autopilot after all (considering it was edited to look like Batman piloted the Batcopter until the last moment, instead of ejecting as soon as the Batcopter got over water - which would be more logical - then for Batman to escape, the Batcopter must have had an escape pod, as well as an extra large can of nuclear neutralizing Bat-spray).  Bruce winks and nods to Alfred at an outdoor cafe, and Blake is summoned to the Batcave to either become the new Batman, or to become Robin.  Its left ambiguous.

Michael Caine sits most of this film out, as he quits Bruce early in. I never bought him as Alfred. When I think of Alfred, I think of a proper British butler, not the cockney commoner Caine.  Morgan Freeman is excellent as Lucius Fox, as was Gary Oldman as Gordon.  Joseph Gordon Levitt was fine as Blake, as he seemed to be the character Nolan was really emphasising. Then there's Christian Bale. His Bruce Wayne is acceptable, but his Batman never worked for me.  Between his frog voice and Hardy's muffled voice, some of the dialogue seriously needed subtitles.  I never cared for the bat costumes in this trilogy. Bale looks very awkward as Batman.  The mask face opening is far too narrow, and serves to emphasise how narrow Bale's jaw is.  In this movie, he seems to breathe through his mouth when in costume, giving Batman a bit of a short school bus passenger look, if you know what I mean. 

Nolan takes liberties with the characters.  Bane is severely altered from the comic books, although the comic book Bane wasn't much more than a C-list villain to begin with.  The John Blake character is a composite of Dick Grayson, Paul Valley, Tim Drake and Terry McGinnis.  Talia is unrecognizable as the comic book Talia. Selina is altered a little. Batman doesn't even get the final victory over Bane.  Selina does, and then rubs it in Batman's face by telling him how his "no guns" policy doesn't work. The finale where Batman apparently sacrifices his life is too similar to Captain America: The First Avenger.  Overall, this movie falls in the middle of the Nolan trilogy.  Not as good as The Dark Knight but not nearly as excruciatingly boring as Batman Begins.

Normally I am not for reboots, but this time I welcome it. The Nolan-Bale celebration of depression Batman is over.  May it rest it peace. At best, I consider it an "Elseworlds" version of Batman. Time to move on. Bring on a new take, a more fun take that is not obsessed with uber-realism. How about reuniting Tim Burton, Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Michelle Pfeiffer for a live action adaptation of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns?  Perhaps in the weeks ahead, I will post my own hopes for the reboot in detail.

And just in case there are some "in Nolan we trust" fanatics reading this, at the end of the day, this review is my opinion.  You have yours, I have mine.  No need to get upset over it.  Why so serious? It's just a movie.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Review: Popeye #3

The third issue of POPEYE has the strongest script of the three issues so far. Roger Langridge gets more humor in it, and tells a good story that combines aspects of Segar and Sagendorf.  Geezel tricks Wimpy into a fight where his opponent is...  well, I won't spoil it.   Popeye trains Wimpy for the fight.  Popeye ends up taking Wimpy's place in the match, and afterward, Wimpy develops a whole new relationship with his former opponent.  Ahem. 

The artwork for this issue is by Tom Neely.  Unlike last issue's Ken Wheaton, Neely does not draw in Bruce Ozella's style.  Instead Neely draws in a style reminiscent of Barbecue For Two, the pilot cartoon for the 1960 series of TV cartoons.  Neely's art is a little more polished than Ozella's, but there are panels where his art gets sloppy, as if he was getting fatigued at the end of a long day of drawing. I like that Neely, who also colored the issue, gets Popeye's hair red (a detail mostly forgotten after decades of the bald animated Popeye), but he has one major mistake:  he gave Popeye teeth.  In the Segar strips, and the pre-1940 Fleischer cartoons, Popeye has no teeth, only gums.

Overall, issue 3 is the best of the series so far, an A-.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Review: Curse Of Shazam, part 5

Chapter 5 of Curse of Shazam from JUSTICE LEAGUE #11 begins where chapter 4 left off, with Black Adam demanding to know where the Wizard is. Adam grabs both Sivana and his henchman, and kills the henchman with a bolt of lightning that emanates from his chest emblem.  Sivana assures Adam he will help him find the Wizard.

Cut to the Bryer house.  Billy and Freddy are trying to break into Bryer's car, so they can roll it down the hill.  The car alarm goes off, and the boys take off.  Freddy is moving too slow, so Billy pushes him into a bush, and tells him to hide there while he draws the Bryers away.  The Bryers chase Billy as he runs into a subway station, then hops onto a subway train, just as one of the Bryer boys punches Billy in the nose, warning him this isn't over.  Suddenly there is a bolt of lightning, and the subway train transforms into something more archaic.  Mysterious fog rolls in as the trains comes to a stop.  Billy exits, finding himself at the Rock of Eternity, and he exclaims, Holy... crap.

My thoughts:  Unfortunately, Billy and Freddy's prank was just a way to get Billy onto the subway train by leading the Bryers on a chase, and not a well crafted, entertaining "Dead End Kids" type antic.  Johns missed an opportunity. I still have doubts about the new costumes.  Don't care for the small Wonder Woman style wristbands, the Spectre style hoodie, and when we get a good look at the lightning emblem, it's actually a lightning emblem inside an inverted triangle.  Hmmm... an inverted triangle?  Kind of like the original 1938 Superman chest emblem.  Black Adam emanates lightning and electricity.  This would make for a good visual for a movie.  In fact, I wonder how much of Curse of Shazam is actually recycled from the rejected Geoff Johns-Bill Birch Shazam movie script.  Things like the emanating lightning, Billy's "holy crap", and the very way the whole story started with the random people being abducted seems very cinematic.  With Billy now at the Rock of Eternity (which looks nothing like the classic version, this is more Harry Potterish, for lack of a better term), business is about to pick up.  I give chapter 5 a B+.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Shazam! on DVD

While we are still waiting for the official announcement of the 1966 Batman TV series to be released on DVD, here's something that came out of left field and took me by surprise. The live action Filmation Shazam! TV series will be released on DVD thru the Warner Archive division (which means it will be on DVD-R, instead of mass produced dual layer DVDs) on September 18, 2012.  This is very good news.  I had expected the series to be released to coincide with the movie, but it seems we won't have to wait that long.  I hope they include the two episodes of Isis that guest starred Captain Marvel, and all 13 installments of the Filmation Shazam! cartoon (some of which written by a young Paul Dini) as bonus features.  I also wish they would have audio commentary by Michael Gray and Jackson Bostwick, but seeing as this will be on DVD-R, I don't know if that could be possible.  Still, very happy and I can't wait!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

movie review: AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

Going in to see The Amazing Spider-Man, I wanted to avoid comparing it to Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. But that is going to be hard to do, since the new movie is kind of like watching a rerun. After only a decade, we get to see the origin of Spider-Man again, but this time its on a somewhat smaller scale.  The Amazing Spider-Man lacks some of the epic nature of Raimi's version. The story takes place over a couple weeks, where the Raimi original covered a couple years.  The new movie veers off from the comic books, into a made-for-cinema direction, where Raimi was very loyal (with the exception of mechanical webshooters) to the comics, even taking great care to duplicate many classic Spidey poses into live action.  The new director, Marc Webb, only does this a couple times, most notably in the final slow motion shot of Spidey. The movie has some good moments, while also seeming a little redundant by retelling the origin.  There are some scenes of Peter's childhood and a background for his father as a trailblazer in human-animal mutation that slows the film down. You get the hint the plan may be to reveal in the sequel Peter's father experimented on an infant Peter with some mutant spider gene, which is why the spider bite activated Peter's spider powers. Marc Webb could have easily made a full-fledged Spider-Man 4 which would have made a much better film.  Especially when you consider Raimi introduced Gwen Stacy and set the stage for the Lizard in Spider-Man 3.

Andrew Garfield, who takes over the title role from Toby Maguire, turned out to be a very good choice.  Maguire was a little more likable as the character, and had the Spidey poses down better than Garfield, but Garfield conveys a gloominess Maguire did not have, and focuses his portrayal on Peter's intelligence (opposed to Maguire, who took more of a dorky nerd approach).  Garfield's Peter is more of a loner, missing the friendship of Harry Osborn. Unfortunately, Garfield also lacked Maguire's comedic timing. The attempts at humor in the new movie seem forced and fall flat.  The movie's only genuinely funny moment is Stan Lee's cameo. 

Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy (replacing Bryce Dallas Howard) is more likable in the role than Howard was, but in this movie, Gwen is supposed to be more intelligent than Peter (as she teases him for being second best).  But Stone exhibits too much of an airhead personality to make it believable Gwen is so intelligent.

Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben is all right, but phones his performance in. Literally, at the end of the movie, where Peter plays Uncle Ben's final voice mail, it sounds like Sheen is reading it cold from a script with no emotion or feeling at all. Sally Field is kind of forgettable as Aunt May.  Then there is Dennis Leary as Captain Stacy.  Imagine if washed up racist comedian Michael Richards was cast as Commissioner Gordon in the Batman movies.  While Leary isn't quite that bad, the role would have been better served by an actual actor rather than a smug stand up comic.

Rhys Ifans is good as Dr Curt Conners, but The Lizard suffers from looking a little fake.  OK, admittedly it would be very hard to do a character like The Lizard without looking a little fake. However, many aspects of this version of Conners/The Lizard seem to be a carbon copy of Alfred Molina's portrayal of Dr Octopus from Spider-Man 2.  Its the same dynamic, where he becomes a mentor of sorts to Peter, then becomes the villain, only to have a redemption in the end.

The action sequences are very good, but its the script that kind of drags the movie down.  Overall, if you are not a major Spidey fan and are debating whether to see this movie, I'd advise you just wait until it airs on cable.