Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

Did we really need a Spider-Man reboot so soon after the Sam Raimi-shaped trilogy? Probably not, but the company behind it (Sony Pictures) did, to retain the rights to the character and to keep them from defaulting back to Marvel. Bad news for those hoping to see him join The Avengers anytime soon. And the movie may also have been needed to purge the bad taste left by Spider-Man 3, which was a major letdown after the spectacular Spider-Man 2: the people at the showing I attended even laughed out loud at what was supposed to be a very emotional death scene. And let’s collectively suppress the memory of Tobey Maguire as ‘evil’ Spidey, shall we? Repeat after me: It. Never. Happened.

In any case: The Amazing Spider-Man is actually surprisingly entertaining, considering how unnecessary the entire undertaking feels, basically retelling the superhero’s origin story again while remixing it with new elements from the Spider-Man universe. It gives us The Lizard/Dr. Curt Connors as the supervillain du jour, played by Rhys Ifans. By the way, this must be frustrating for actor Dylan Baker who lingered in the background during the Raimi trilogy as the same character, foreshadowing his ass off, fruitlessly waiting for his time center stage. Andrew Garfield makes for a younger and hipper-but-still-underdog Peter Parker and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey is a less doe-eyed, more assertive love-interest than Kirsten Dunst was as Mary Jane Watson. Parker discovering his powers is also done better here than it was the last time, with more of a sense of wonder. Spidey’s webshooters, which were creepily organic in the previous incarnation, making for all kinds of pubescent symbolism, are mechanical and somehow less practically believable in this one.

The script is very much by the numbers and at no point was I especially surprised. Like in The Dark Knight Rises, there are big displays counting down to something bad happening, miraculous recoveries and various other unlikelihoods, but because this movie has a more playful and comic-booky feel to it, it seems to hurt less here than it did there. Nevertheless, there are some eye-rollers: I could have done without a sappy moment involving cranes that went for the heart-strings a bit too bluntly. It seemed to ape a similar, but more effective moment from Spider-Man 2. And it is odd that this version of Spider-Man still has a secret identity in the end as he finds himself without his mask in (semi-)public, quite likely within the reach of a camera. But then he doesn’t seem to be all that concerned about remaining anonymous and is soon more out of the closet about it than his predecessor was.

Where will the franchise go from here? Will it re-use the same villains or introduce new, less well-known ones? It’s worrying that The Goblin is getting set up as the villain for a future movie, considering that he wasn’t the best of villains last time, even if he is a main-stay in the comics. The first time around, the character wasn’t served well by the head-covering mask. Going up against the equally masked Spidey, there was an embarrassing whiff of Power Rangers to their fights. If he is indeed headed for this version of Spider-Man, that could spell trouble for Gwen Stacey, going by comic book lore (spoilers). But then, that infamous moment from the comics was already toyed with in the previous trilogy, so the series would be repeating itself. The question remains: will the franchise stick to safe and predictable remixes or actually throw the viewers a curve-ball and prove it has a right to exist? Fingers crossed for the latter.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises is the last movie in a trilogy, a series directed and crafted by Christopher Nolan. His take on the Batman legend was to make it gritty and semi-realistic, even if the situations and characters were larger than life. He made it seem psychologically plausible that a kid orphaned by crime would be motivated to spend his adult years running around in a bat costume battling dastardly villains. But the problem is that the grittiness clashes with some of the more outlandish elements of the plot this time around, making the weak spots hard to miss.

Realizing that the finale needed to be bigger in scale to meet inflated expectations, the evil scheme concocted by Batman’s adversary is truly grandiose, unlikely and riddled with plot holes. It just seems the writers didn’t really think things through or skimmed over certain bits in the hope people wouldn’t notice. Among other things: there is an ill-conceived prison, a miraculous healing (actually, make that two at minimum) and there is a chemical that degrades in such a predictable, linear manner that a big, glowing timer can predict to the second when it will suddenly turn catastrophic. This process is also explicitly noted to destabilize the substance progressively, but it stays surprisingly inert while being knocked about with vigor right before the aforementioned catastrophic moment.

All this is not to say The Dark Knight Rises is a bad movie. (I wouldn’t want to get death threats from dangerously fanatic fanboys.) It’s a bit too long but entertaining throughout and a cut above the standard summer blockbuster fare. The attention is spread nicely among a large and capable cast, Batman not even being on screen all that much. Michael Caine (Alfred the butler), Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon) and Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox) all reprise their roles with enthusiasm and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anne Hathaway are game as a capable cop and a charming but duplicitous Catwoman respectively. Matthew Modine pops up and had me realize that I would really like to see him in a movie again, but that his character is entirely superfluous in this one. Tom Hardy makes an interesting vocal choice for his imposing muscleman of a villain, sounding like a posh English bloke. It teeters on the edge of ridiculous but works in that it sounds a bit creepy. Covering up his mouth may be in line with his comic book design and serve as a plot-device, but seems like a mistake to me: he can only emote só much with just his eyes. Christian Bale dials back his infamous gravely Batman voice and is fine both in costume and as Bruce Wayne, even if he seems to lack charm as the latter.

I was somewhat disappointed with the movie, but I think that was just because my expectations were too high. I was hoping it would be a classic, trumping the previous two movies and going all out, because a reboot seems likely after this trilogy in any case and Nolan had the opportunity to craft a definitive ending to his Batman saga. That the plot didn’t hang together all that well was an unexpected hitch. Admittedly I should have expected it, as I have heard people point out that the previous two movies also weren’t perfect in this regard, featuring plot holes I missed on first viewing. However, this time there was no missing them. The movie also didn’t flow as well as it could have by cutting some unnecessary scenes involving fringe characters and giving the villain(s) a less anti-climactic exit. I am curious to see if the next Batman film picks up on the interesting way The Dark Knight Rises leaves things or will be a straight-up reboot as happened with the Spiderman franchise. As long as there are no nipples on the Batsuit, I’ll be there to check it out.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Movie Review: Triple Bill

During a transatlantic flight, I recently watched three movies in a row on the little screen embedded in the seat in front of me. My long legs in combination with cramped Economy seating made it impossible to sleep, so I pushed through the night by focusing on the tales I was being told. In order, I saw: Men in Black 3, Snow White and the Huntsman and Dark Shadows. A short review of each seems appropriate. I won’t be commenting on cinematography though, as movies are butchered/adapted to fit on the small screen, meaning 2.35:1 (cinema size) turns into ye olde television size (4:3). Shots that show two people having a conversation turn into a succession of shots cutting back and forth between them and large parts of the screen get snipped off. I am not sure why they still do this as people are now used to watching movies in the original format on their various teensy pad-devices. In any case, here were my sleep-deprived impressions:

Men in Black 3 – Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) make as good a dynamic duo as ever, policing aliens who are living on earth undercover. Mostly they do this, it seems, by zapping them with guns that make them explode into colorful goo. There is a hitch in operations when a criminal from K’s past escapes from space-prison and wipes him out of history, necessitating that J travel to 1969 to set things right. Here he ends up working with a younger version of K, played by Josh Brolin. Seeing Brolin do a dead-on impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones is pretty much enough on its own to make this movie worth your time. MIB3 feels like a return to form after the bloated and chaotic MIB2, with a pretty tidy script that has charm, loads of comic-booky action and a sweet little twist at the end. MIB4 is already being planned and if they can make it as engaging as this chapter, I’m all for it.

Snow White and the Huntsman – This is a somewhat confused retelling of the well-known fairytale. The tone veers between gritty action and cheesy fantasy sequences. For a while it even feels like it wants to be part of the Lord of the Rings franchise. Highlight of the film is Charlize Theron’s wicked performance as the Evil Queen Ravenna and she is supported by some cool and creepy visual effects that reminded me of the Brothers Grimm origin of the Snow White story. A love-triangle is set up between Snow White, the Huntsman and her childhood best friend but this thread is left dangling completely at the end, very obviously baiting a sequel. However, making one has gotten tricky: the married director of the film (Rupert Sanders) had a much-publicized affair with his lead (Kristen Stewart) which got more publicity than the film itself and broke up Stewart with her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson. The affair was extra-awkward as the director’s wife played an admittedly minor part as Snow White’s doomed mom. A spin-off just starring Chris Hemsworth as The Huntsman is now likely to be made instead.

Dark Shadows – This homage to a supernatural soap-series from the sixties reunites director Tim Burton with actor Johnny Depp for what was at last count the umpteenth time. Burton’s wife Helena Bonham Carter also stars, as does Michelle Pfeiffer. The basic plot: when the head of the renowned Collins family (Depp) doesn’t return a witch’s love after an ill-advised thryst, she rather creatively curses him with vampirism. He gets buried alive (or rather ‘undead’) and only by chance resurfaces a couple of hundred years later, during the swinging sixties, gaining acceptance surprisingly easily with his Collins descendants even though he undeniably looks and acts strange and is not averse to the occasional killing spree. But then, there is more than one oddball in the dysfunctional family. The witch has also survived through the centuries and continues her feud against him, his descendants and their business, which is in direct competition to hers. All she demands is his love… Dark Shadows is fun to observe, but you feel like you’re on the outside looking in at a group of actors having a hell of a good time - which admittedly is entertaining in itself - rather than getting in on the story. As with most of Burton’s movies, the designs are great, with this time a blend of gothic and sixties elements. But there’s no sympathy to be had for a character who feels only marginally guilty about killing a bunch of innocent people or for a family who turns a blind eye to it. The ending also doesn’t really satisfy and is annoyingly open. Dark Shadows is not Burton’s best, but if you just focus on the surface and don’t give the plot too much thought, it is weird and funny enough to keep you smiling during a sleep-deprived transatlantic flight while stuffed into Economy seating.