Sunday, July 29, 2012

Reel To Reel: The Dark Knight Rises

If this is the 99 percent, I'd rather be in the minority.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Matthew Modine
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Action violence

I wonder what would happen if the French Revolution broke out in 2012 New York City, perhaps if Occupy Wall Street acquired some super-criminal who trapped the cops and built a nuke and threw everybody in Manhattan making above five figures into the street. I think it would look at lot like The Dark Knight Rises, the satisfying end to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. If not for the opening-night massacre in Colorado, we'd be talking about how this film is anti-Occupy and right-wing friendly. That's even despite the best efforts of a certain radio talk show host to draw a connection between the arch-villain and one of Mitt Romney's old jobs, somehow inferring the left will use it to their advantage. Enough, already.

Batman is in bat-retirement as the threequel opens, blamed for the death of beloved DA Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne (Bale) is living more like Howard Hughes. He's secluded in his stately manor outside Gotham, which still looks a lot like Chicago. Dent's legacy is anti-racketeering laws which have cleaned up the city and left the police, I presume, with little more to do than chase the routine thugs, murderers and thieves. They don't need a superhero anymore, especially not "The Batman."

However, nobody's been checking the sewers, where a criminal mastermind named Bane (Hardy) is building an army out of various low-paid cretins, who may or may not be construction workers. Bane is what you get when you cross Darth Vader with Hannibal Lecter: a highly-educated, highly-sophisticated maniac with a voice that should be advertising Bose speaker systems. He's got a scientist in his pocket and a plan to use Gotham as a lab for a class war that really is a war. He's also got a girl: Selina (Hathaway), aka Catwoman, who's making a living robbing the rich like Wayne and forgiving herself under the guise, "A girl's gotta eat."

Wayne catches Selina stealing his mother's necklace, but he sees it's a ruse for something much bigger. So does Commissioner Gordon, hospitalized by an injury in the line of duty, who's carrying the weight of the truth about what happened between Batman and Dent but afraid to tell because bigger things are at stake. He knows he needs Batman, but can Gotham's Finest handle the truth? As Wayne mulls whether to put the dark suit back on, he's prodded this way and that by his two stalwarts: genius inventor Lucius Fox (Freeman) and faithful servant Alfred (Caine, in an emotional performance). We also see a prototypical Good Cop, Foley (Modine), someone who isn't afraid of a guy in a bat-suit.

It turns out Batman and Bane are cut from the same cloth as superheroes go. What's fascinating is that they lack any super-powers. Bane needs a mask to breathe. Wayne can barely stand without a cane. Much of the movie involves his physical rehabilitation after Bane leaves him to suffer in a middle eastern prison.

And oh man, what toys they have. The Bat-cycle returns along with an aerial assault vehicle that makes Blue Thunder look like Those Daring Young Men In Their Flying Machines. Bane's got a fusion nuclear device and a whole lot of explosives which allow him to blow up the stock market, put Gotham under siege during a football game, and unleash his version of the 99 percent to wreak havoc upon the upper class. Who needs a guillotine when you can force those unrepentant filthy rich to go walk across thin ice and watch them fall in? They've probably heard that old Mel Brooks joke, "Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die!"

Most of the action in The Dark Knight Rises is cerebral, playing upon nuances and hints to let our brains fill in details while the film charges ahead. But director Christopher Nolan goes all-in for the finish, building mass heroism on top of nightmarish terrorism. My takeaway from this film, however, is a warning about populist movements and class struggles, and how they can be used by corrupt forces looking to amass power. I don't think Occupy Wall Street would line up behind Bane, but sometimes, I'm not so sure.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Reel To Reel: The Amazing Spider Man

Caught in a web of growing up.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Action violence

Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. He wasn't talking about Hollywood reboots, but I figured it odd when Columbia Pictures opted to restart the Spider-Man franchise when plans for Spider-Man 4 fell through. Only this time, instead of a straight comic-book actioner, we get a superhero coming-of-age film that seems to borrow from the Twilight and Harry Potter flicks.

The new Spider-Man is rebellious and conflicted, but it's also focused. It reworks or abandons key parts of the story we already know. Peter Parker/Spidey (Garfield) still takes pictures, but he's not gigging for the "Daily Bugle." Mary Jane is out of the picture, replaced with Gwen Stacy (Stone). The Green Goblin has been rejiggered into another green baddie. Fortunately, it leaves one ingredient alone: Parker's status as a nerd shutterbug who can't get a girl.

We get to see more of what happened before Parker became the webbed one. The film starts with a desperate hand-off of the young boy to his Aunt May (Field) and Uncle Ben (Sheen). Fast forward to Parker's teenage years, where he's bullied for standing up to the school bully Flash (Chris Zylka) and mentored by his uncle. The opening 15 minutes reminded me a lot of the original Superman, when a teenage Clark Kent was struggling with an identity crisis and a family he didn't really know.

Parker learns his father was involved in some kind of cross-species genetic testing, which prods him to sneak into Dad's old laboratory. It's located inside Oscorp, a multinational behemoth that makes, well, a lot of stuff and has a really cool building to show for it in Manhattan. While poking around inside Oscorp, Parker gets a little too close to some genetically-diddled spiders, and you probably know the rest.

We see several great sequences of Parker learning to cope with his Spidey superpowers, although he is not pushed towards the red spandex look we're familiar with until his beloved Uncle Ben falls victim to a punk armed robber. At the same time, he's trying to help finish the work his father began, befriending Dad's old lab partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Ifans), who is about to embark on a disastrous experiment. And yes, he's going after Gwen in an awkward way.

If Tobey Maguire was a vulnerable, innocent Peter Parker, Garfield is more James Dean than Peter Parker. At times, The Amazing Spider-Man seems like it belongs on the CW's primetime schedule than on the big screen. It's heavy on teen love, angst and romance, so much so that it rushes other plot points, notably Parker's life-changing encounter with the spider. A final showdown contains a plot device that looks like it got there because the writers -- including Spider-Man veteran Alvin Sargent and Harry Potter scribe Steve Kloves -- couldn't think up anything better.

When Warner Bros. rebooted the Batman series, it took on new maturity and depth. The new Spider-Man doesn't rise to that level, but it's at least willing to try to evolve beyond a run-of-the-mill comic-book movie.