Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

February 2014

Star Trek Into Darkness (PG-13)

Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Chris Pine
May 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Red trees...finally an alien-looking planet!
I first saw these trees in the trailer and was blown away by the striking visual of their vermillion branches and leaves against white trunks. What captivated me most as a fan of TOS was the “new life and new civilizations” part of the opening monolog. Unfortunately, we’ve had so many Earth-like climates/habitats in Sci-fi movies and TV shows that the same old desert, arctic, water, forest, jungle, etc., environments have become commonplace and stale. This world feels appropriately otherworldly and has brought back the thrill of deep space exploration that was so palpable in TOS.

Crossing universes...Spock appears to be on Mustafar.

What would Spock do? A good revelation.
WWSD? I wouldn’t want Spock’s cold logic deciding my fate.

Nice stand-alone mission with mud-skinned aliens. Reminds me of a TOS episode.

Nice pork chops, Pike. The 70s called and they want their sideburns back.

“You don’t respect the chair.” Great line and scene with Pike.
Bruce Greenwood is the elder statesman in the new Trek films. Pike possesses a dignity and decorum sorely lacking in the impetuous Kirk, whom he’s taken under his wing. Greenwood’s performance has really grounded Abrams’ first two Trek’s in profound ways.

80s action stars never die...they become Starfleet admirals.

Section 31. Any
DS9 fans out there?

The Mudd Incident. Another
TOS reference. Sulu tough as nails.

McCoy’s metaphors...funny scene.
This tweet comes before the previous one chronologically. Couldn’t think fast enough.

Exciting firefight with marauders and mystery combatant.

Superb stare down between Kirk and Harrison.
The tension here is palpable...two really good actors in a showdown. Superb dialog in this pivotal scene.

Red alert...gratuitous underwear scene.

Awesome Gorn reference. Torpedo planet looks like it’s on loan from Ridey Scott’s
Dr. McCoy is such a Southern gentleman. Not sure I’d be such a gentleman if I were all alone on a planet with Carol Marcus (Alice Eve).

Notice the shape of the scrap on Kirk’s cheek bone.
The first of many instances of Manly Thumbs vs. Tiny Keypad. Score 1 for the keypad. “Scrap” should be “scrape.”

Admiral Robo’s ship looks like it comes from TNG.

Scotty’s sprint and debris field, good stuff.
My favorite movie line of the year is when Scotty tells Kirk to give him a minute. Impeccable delivery!

Pair o Spock’s redux. Pivotal scene.
It’s always nice to see an old friend.

“Shall we begin?” Not nearly as good as “Go ahead, make my day,” but It’ll do.
Ah, that voice! Just reading the words and I can hear Cumberbatch’s rich baritone voice echoing in my head.

Finally...seatbelts on the Enterprise.
It only took what...48 years?

For film studies buffs, notice the use of plexiglass in crucial scenes throughout.
Plexiglass or transparent aluminum?

A tribble saves the day!

Ah, the fistfight we’ve been waiting for all movie.

5 year mission. Does that mean a new TV show? Wishful thinking, I’m sure.

Rating: 3 out of 4. Same as last one. Perhaps a tad better due to Cumberbatch’s performance. Next up...After Earth with Will Smith.

Final Thoughts/Parting Shots: Okay, there’s so much to say, good and bad, in an analysis of this film, but I don’t want to ramble on like I did for J.J’s first Trek. First off, it’s very sad to say goodbye to one of our heroes in this film. The admiral’s presence will be sorely missed in future Treks. Most of the FX are stellar, but the matte shot of the Klingon moon (Praxis?) is a bit dicey. Some nitpicks: Is it really that short of a warp journey to get from Kronos to Earth (the Enterprise only travels at warp speed for a few minutes before Adm. Marcus’ ship blasts the Enterprise out of warp, depositing it near the moon)? If so, such proximity to the enemy home world would be worrisome… for both galactic superpowers, one would presume. Next, is Earth’s gravitational pull so great that it could draw the Enterprise all the way from the moon into its atmosphere? Seems a bit implausible. I could go on and on regarding the movie’s inconsistencies (like the can of Regulan bloodworms that was opened up by the subplot involving Khan’s “fountain of youth” blood), but I’ll refrain. My biggest snafu is revealing Harrison as Khan. Why is it necessary? Is Harrison any less compelling a villain, as played by Cumberbatch, than Khan? Since there’s so little back story and character development for the villain wouldn’t he work as either Harrison or Khan? And if so, doesn’t that mean the decision to make the villain Khan a contrived one? A gimmick to boost ratings? Some may see this choice as a way of introducing a new generation to the colorful TOS antagonist, but others might see it as needlessly tampering with a classic villain. Speaking of Cumberbatch as Khan, I must admit that I’m not as blown away by his performance as I thought I’d be (I know, I’m probably the only person on the planet who feels this way). One needs look no further than Sherlock to see just how brilliant and commanding an actor Cumberbatch is. Here, due to limited screen time and an underdeveloped character, the actor is effective but a far cry from phenomenal. Again, I might be alone in this assertion, but I feel like Abrams could’ve gotten more out of Cumberbatch…that there was an extra gear the actor could’ve shifted into to make his performance even more memorable. Be that as it may, Into Darkness is a fine follow-up to 2009’s Star Trek, and has expanded the series and taken it into appropriately darker territory. Bring on the next film…Star Trek To the Light Side. Lens flares included.

Argo (R)

Directed by: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck
October 2012

“Inspired by actual events” movies can either be, well, inspirational or emotionally overwrought. Fortunately,
Argo has a healthy dose of the former along with great performances and a steady hand at the helm in star/director Ben Affleck. Instead of being merely based on a true story, Argo is “Inspired by the incredible true story,” as the movie’s marketing materials would have us believe. When you use a superlative like incredible to describe your movie, you open yourself up to a world of ridicule if the film doesn’t live up to such a lofty assertion. Again, the movie has nothing to worry about as the word incredible is far too paltry a word to describe this Oscar contending powerhouse…that just happens to be a true story.

Superlatives aside, the film chronicles the historical account of six Americans who are displaced from the US embassy in Iran during the violent riot/siege in 1980. Forced to hide out at the Canadian ambassador’s (Victor Garber) house, our half dozen citizens must evade capture long enough for our government to figure out a rescue plan. Enter CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck), a specialist in such dangerous extractions. He has a plan…sort of. Gleaning inspiration from his son’s choice of TV entertainment, a
Planet of the Apes movie, Tony devises a scheme where he will fly into Tehran as a location scout for a sci-fi movie and fly back with his “film crew.” What could possibly go wrong with that plan?

As Bryan Cranston’s Jack O’Donnell says, in one of the movie’s many memorable lines, “This is the best bad idea we have…by far.” However, if the cause is just, sometimes fate will conspire against probability and even a bad plan will work like magic. Such is the case here, except for the magic part. It takes forces far more powerful than that to get our citizens back home…teamwork, tenacity and a ridiculous amount of happy coincidence.

However, when it comes to movie magic, the film has it in spades: besides a terrific script by Chris Terrio (based on Mendez’ memoir), sure-handed direction by Affleck, sweeping cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, milieu appropriate coifs, costumes, sets and archival news footage (and an old toy collection I’d die to get my hands on, shown at movie’s end), what puts it over the top is the film’s knowing jabs at Hollywood. John Goodman, in a sensational supporting role as make-up expert John Chambers, tells Mendez that he’ll fit right in pretending to be a Hollywood big shot. Another terrific supporting role is turned in by Alan Arkin, who plays an out-of-step movie producer whose every utterance in the film lands like a well-timed punch line, particularly the oft used play on words, “Argo f@!k yourself.” The film never takes itself too seriously, which is its greatest weapon and asset. So then,
Argo can be called a biopic with bracing drama and selective moments of comic relief. This is as close to a complete movie as you’re ever likely to experience.

When the action heats up in the later acts, the film becomes a first-rate thriller. Indeed, the film’s climax, specifically in the way all of the moving parts have to work just perfectly in order for our heroes to be saved, is reminiscent of the pulse-pounding intensity of
Apollo 13 (1995), another high stakes drama based on actual events. In addition to edge-of-your-seat climaxes, both films also have stand-up-and-cheer endings.

Any way you slice it,
Argo is a superior film and should rack up a clutch of Oscar nominations/wins come awards season. Depending on how Mr. Spielberg’s Lincoln turns out, Argo just might waltz off the stage with the top prize: an Oscar for Best Picture certainly isn’t out of its reach. Prognostications aside, Argo is the finest biopic that’s come along in quite some time. Sometimes true stories based on bad ideas make for great movies.

Rating: 3 1/2

Taken 2 (PG-13)

Directed by: Olivier Megaton
Starring: Liam Neeson
October 2012

The follow-up to the successful thriller
Taken (2008), Taken 2 is leaner, meaner and doubles the number of kidnappings. This time around it’s a family affair as Liam Neeson, Famke Jansen and Maggie Grace, while vacationing in Istanbul, are targeted by Albanian thugs with a grudge against Neeson for his former transgressions against their family. Grace’s Kim was the one taken in the last film, but she evades capture this time, thanks in large part to a major assist from dad. Turning the tables, Neeson’s Bryan and Jansen’s Lenore are abducted by the avenging Albanians.

Admittedly, the formula is very much the same here as in the first film: foreign locale, high speed chases, high body count, etc. Other similarities to the earlier movie are flaccid character development and plot holes so large that even Kim can parallel park inside of them: case in point, Kim goes from twice failing her drivers test to zipping through the narrow, teeming streets in Istanbul as if she’s the second coming of Jason Bourne. Besides the utter silliness of the chase scene, doesn’t Kim look a little old for a high school student? Perhaps she was held back a few years. Oh, and how many times must Bryan admonish Kim to speed up, go faster, etc (you can create a drinking game with such repetitions) before she finally follows her dad’s instructions?

With a running time of ninety-two minutes this second
Taken installment is definitely lean, which is a good thing since a longer film would’ve made it even more obvious just how little story there is here. The plot’s breakneck pace further distracts the audience from realizing they’re viewing a ridiculously simple through line, heavy on action and nearly devoid of any character complexity. On the upside, the movie doesn’t overstay its welcome. On the downside, the “climactic” showdown between Bryan and the aggrieved father from Albania is akin to air escaping a balloon…the very definition of anti-climactic. We’re waiting for a rejoinder, another bigger, cooler battle like we’re used to seeing in the standard action picture. Taken 2 is the exception to that rule—the bad guys are finished off, the frazzled family is reunited and the movie ends…but not before Kim passes her driving test to the downpour of warm fuzzies. The film feels rushed and could actually use and additional ten to fifteen minutes of story; a panacea I prescribe for very, very few films.

In the end,
Taken 2 is no better or worse than its predecessor and extends the series without necessarily advancing it. Still, if popcorn entertainment is the order of the day, it’s hard to go wrong with Taken 2. Some will enjoy the film for the pulse-pounding romp that it is while others will feel like they’ve been taken for a ride.

Rating: 2 1/2

Trouble with the Curve (PG-13)

Directed by: Robert Lorenz
Starring: Clint Eastwood
September 2012

There were rumors that
Gran Torino (2008) would be Clint Eastwood’s swan song as an actor, but fortunately the lovable curmudgeon is back in the saddle in Trouble With the Curve, a middling baseball yarn directed by Robert Lorenz. Here, Eastwood plays a crusty baseball scout who’s too proud to get an eye surgery or use a computer for stat analysis, despite his daughter’s (Amy Adams) incessant urging to get ocular support for the former and his boss’ (John Goodman) eternal consternation over the inefficiency of the latter. Adams is an up-and-coming lawyer who can spit out baseball stats like Vin Scully…a chip off the old block, though her career choice is a disappointment to Eastwood, who had trained Adams from her youth to eventually fill his shoes. Justin Timberlake, who’s a rival to Eastwood and love interest for Adams, introduces a change up element into the middle of the plate narrative. Or to put it another way, the story would’ve been pretty vanilla without Timberlake’s twist of wild cherry.

One of the major plot points involves a young slugger who has a ton of talent and confidence, but also plenty of attitude and arrogance to match. Goodman, along with front office staffers Robert Patrick and Mathew Lillard, must decide whether or not to draft the young phenom over Eastwood’s objections concerning the player’s dubious potential. But with failing eyesight and archaic scouting methods are Eastwood’s evaluative skills to be trusted with a big paycheck on the line?

Trouble sets up well with Eastwood’s physical impediments, Adams’ struggle to make partner at a law firm while helping out stubborn dad, Timberlake’s hero worship of Eastwood and schmoozing of Adams and Goodman’s constantly challenged loyalty to Eastwood by Patrick and Lillard. There are some good character moments throughout, like Eastwood’s utter inability to have a conversation with Adams about anything other than baseball. An insider’s look at the baseball scouting process and interactions between scouts and the front office is mildly diverting, and the character beats are marginally intriguing, but the film, much like the young man being scouted, fails to deliver on its potential.

The trouble with the film is its ending: contrived to the point of absurdity, the populist notion that a kid who’s never played on a baseball team can strike out a slugger at the top of the draft class is reassuring and heartwarming, but utterly ludicrous. Adams’ decision to leave behind a promising career in law to follow in daddy’s footsteps is also oversimplified and overly idealistic. It’s just another populist climax for viewers who get off on that type of roses and rainbows ending. Also, and not that a film must always tie up all of its loose ends, but we never learn if Eastwood undergoes eye surgery or if he decides to stay with the game or retire.

With the film’s pedigree I expected a lot more from it; maybe not
Field of Dreams (1989) but perhaps something comparable to The Rookie (2002). Unfortunately, this film isn’t as magical as the former or as inspirational as the latter. Trouble has a few solid innings, but strikes out in the end.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Master (R)

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman
September 2012

The Master has all of the directorial deftness, acting acumen and narrative nuance one could hope for in an instant classic. It’s as if the word Oscar is subliminally inscribed onto each individual frame of the film. As the movie languidly rolls along, all you see is Oscar...Oscar...Oscar. Whether or not the film’s formidable array of talent and production values translates into actual statuettes remains to be seen, but a more obvious example of Oscar bait you’re not likely to find.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction is utterly mesmerizing, aided in subtle yet profound ways by Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s sumptuous cinematography. Philip Seymour Hoffman is typically terrific as a charismatic cult leader and Joaquin Phoenix is masterfully magnetic as an aimless, restless lush—he’s taken his performance as Johnny Cash in
Walk the Line (2005) and slathered on new layers of physical ticks and mental neuroses. Amy Adams is effective in her role but there isn’t as much meat on the bone here as there was in her last outing with Hoffman in the dramatically taut Doubt (2008). Laura Dern has even less screen time than Adams, but makes the most of a pivotal supporting role as a passionate acolyte of Hoffman’s dianetics-esque religion.

Performances aside, the story is a rich, multi-layered yarn that has much to say about humanity’s search for significance in the ebbs and flows of life. Phoenix is the yin to Hoffman’s yang…in a strange twist of fate the two become unlikely friends. In unexpected yet undeniable ways, one is the answer to the other: Phoenix lacks structure and focus and Hoffman needs more insouciance and spontaneity.

The Master is a microcosm of our collective struggle to ascertain the reason for being. The film’s paradoxical layers of meaning are as insidious as they are insightful: just as spectators strive to apprehend the purpose of their own existence, the characters in the film also seek to understand their role and place in the cosmos. In a shrewd attempt at indoctrination, the film projects its prescriptions and hypotheses of sentience through its characters onto the viewer, who then must embrace or outright reject such precepts based on previously formed beliefs and world views. Though the film appears benign, it is extremely aggressive in its refusal to leave us unchanged where life’s big questions are concerned.

However, for all of its ostensibly insightful glimpses into the essence of existence, the story ends up being little more than a manifesto for the free thinking, existential, touchy-feely set. Despite it’s utterly engrossing narrative, brilliantly told and visualized by Anderson,
The Master will undoubtedly leave its audience in a “huh?” haze as the end credits roll. It’s not that the plot is too hard to follow or its structure too complex, but when all is said and done what does it all mean?

In the same way that Clint Eastwood’s
Hereafter (2010) posed many questions about the afterlife but ultimately proved inadequate at answering any of them (of course), The Master posits numerous notions concerning the nature of reality but fails to convince the audience of its doctrines. In the end, the film’s lasting relevance will be more for its artistry than its philosophy (sophistry?). Maybe the real answer to existence is striking the balance between Hoffman’s relentless pursuit of knowledge and Phoenix’s unbridled lust for life.

Rating: 3

Arbitrage (R)

Directed by: Nicholas Jarecki
Starring: Richard Gere
September 2012

So here we have a standard movie about a workaholic male who makes bad financial decisions, has an affair, gets caught red-handed in both and ends up loosing everything (no spoiler alert here since most of this is discernible from the trailer). The basic plot of
Arbitrage has been employed a thousand times before, and has been executed far better on a number of occasions. The movie threatens to degenerate into a Lifetime movie at times, but the compelling characterizations, coupled with the typically stellar performances by Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon, hoist this film to the top third of dramatic morality plays.

Gere’s turn as corporate giant Robert Miller is a disquieting portrait of modern man. Miller is driven by success, greed, lust and the failing notion that he can be provider and protector for the women in his life. Turns out Miller’s wife, daughter and paramour all need protection from him and his calamitous choices. Like many of his real life contemporaries—the Bernie Madoff’s of the world—Miller is able to keep all of the plates spinning in the air for a time, but is ultimately doomed to fiscal failure as well as public and private humiliation. The film’s resolution is intentionally left ambiguous, but none of the possible outcomes are ideal where Miller’s future is concerned.

When all is said and done,
Arbitrage isn’t a barnburner, but isn’t a bad way to spend a couple hours either. The performances alone should keep viewers engaged in the slow boil narrative. The universal moral “you play with fire, you get burned” is worth reinforcing, I suppose, lest someone has forgotten such lessons imparted in the latest episode of Law and Order or NCIS. Though not quite an ode to modern males, the film posits some fascinating notions regarding this allegedly endangered gender. Great performances with some food for thought…who could ask for anything more?

Rating: 3

The Dark Knight Rises (PG-13)

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale
July 2012

So how do you improve upon a film that was a global phenomenon (one billion worldwide gross) and also featured the unforgettable, posthumous Academy Award winning performance by Heath Ledger as the maniacal Joker? Though a daunting question to grapple with, the obvious answer is that you take the sequel in a different direction. Director Christopher Nolan certainly achieved that in his darker, grittier trilogy capper, but did he choose the right direction?

The movie opens with a spectacular midair heist that introduces us to the movie’s formidable villain, Bane (Tom Hardy). A robbery at the Wayne Manor establishes the other villain/wildcard in the movie, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), a battered shell of his former self, is on hiatus from his jaunting about as Batman and is set to be voted off the board of his own company due to bad business decisions. To make matters worse, Wayne’s longstanding, long-suffering butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), leaves the Wayne Manor over a dispute with Wayne. With the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gylenhaal) in the previous film, Wayne now has little, if anything, to hold onto. And all of this occurs before the action with Bane kicks into high gear.

Kicking the hero while he’s down is okay as long as he eventually emerges as the hero we know and love. That Batman, however, never makes an appearance in this film. You’d think that with the word
rises in the title, Batman would overcome his mental and physical infirmities and avenge himself upon Bane, but his role in the film’s resolution is anything but triumphant. One of the points frequently stressed in the movie is that Bruce Wayne/Batman can’t do it all by himself, but it would be nice if he did something…other than get his butt kicked in every melee he’s a part of in the movie. As such, though brimming with gritty realism, the film gives us little to cheer about or for. By movie’s end, the whole sordid affair amounts to little more than a bleak exercise in anarchy.

As for Batman’s fighting style in the film…it’s annoying. He’s out of control and impatient, forcing punches in a berserker style that should be Bane’s method of attack. Did Batman forget all of his training? If anything, shouldn’t Batman, as an experienced fighter, be the more restrained and patient of the two combatants and use Bane’s bulk and momentum against him?

I repent of ever criticizing Batman’s (Bale’s) hushed and throaty speech, because Bane’s muffled and mechanized vocalizations are exceedingly difficult to decipher at times. I’m not sure I’m sold on Nolan’s take on Bane. I much prefer the Bane from the Venom storyline in the Batman comic books. True, Bane is more compelling if he isn’t under the influence of an illicit substance, but the Venom-enhanced Bane is far more frightening since there’s just no reasoning with him. Although I’m certainly not advocating a return to the goofy sidekick caricature of the character in
Batman & Robin (1997), a Venom-infused Bane, if handled properly, is one of the most formidable and ferocious members of Batman’s rogues gallery. Plus, by introducing Venom into the Bane storyline, how awesome would it be if Wayne also got hooked on the juice like he did in the comic, unleashing a more savage side of the Caped Crusader? The Venom storyline would seem to be tailor-made for a story about a physically battered Batman in desperate need of a physical edge against an imposing, seemingly impervious adversary.

The film has some severe highs and lows, both thematically and critically. Fittingly, the movie’s high point is when Wayne gains the courage to leave the hellish gulag by ascending the jagged walls of an ostensibly bottomless well. The sequence works on different levels: symbolically (Wayne literally rising above past fears, mistakes, etc.) and personally (as the film prefigures, Wayne must find the anger, focus and motivation to return him to his former status, if not physical condition, as Gotham’s protector).

Another aspect that works well here is Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister’s sweeping city shots, which are some of the finest in Nolan’s
Batman trilogy. The city shots featuring pyrotechnics are utterly mesmerizing, especially the double bridge explosion. The most exciting visual in the film is at the Gotham Knights football game when, during a kickoff, a sprinting player stays one step ahead of the collapsing field which falls away in sections behind him. Though only consuming a few seconds of screen time, it’s a gorgeous yet gut-wrenching visual.

Of course, bridges exploding and sections of the city crumbling beneath the surface are rife with 9-11 imagery. Just as he did in the previous
Batman films, Nolan taps into lingering anxieties over 9-11 by showing a city being ripped apart at the seams by a terrorist. As such, the film’s most obvious 9-11 allusion is Bane himself—a self-styled, self-righteous terrorist with misguided populist notions of an ideal society operating under his jackboot. Bane sees himself as a type of Robin Hood, an avenger for the people (who’s ultimately in it for himself). Bane’s men stealing Wayne’s Bat-Tanks and unleashing them on the city to wreak havoc echoes the way terrorists used our own technology against us on that fateful day in 2001. Besides blowing things up, Bane’s mission also includes bringing corrupt political leaders, tycoons, etc to justice for their decadent lifestyles. By using his antagonist as a type of avatar, Nolan exposes corporate greed and political pork by borrowing from real life headlines ranging from the Enron scandal to the financial fleecing by the city council in Bell, CA.

Getting back to the Bat-Tanks, wouldn’t engineer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) have built in an optical scanner failsafe so that only Batman could use them (with thanks to my sister for pointing this out)? Other than the Bat-Tanks, the newest toy in this movie, not to be outdone by the more heavily armored Batmobile in the previous film, is the envy inducing Bat-Bike. The way the Bat-Bike takes corners, it’s round front tire somewhat reminiscent of the swiveling ball on a Dyson vacuum, is another of the film’s visual delights…it really must be seen to be fully appreciated.

I have neither the energy nor the inclination to detail an exhaustive list of the movie’s inconsistencies or gaps in logic, but one sequence in particular is addled with numerous errors. After being convicted in Bane’s kangaroo court, Commissioner Gordon is sent out onto a river covered in thin ice. Three problems here: when Batman shows up, he’s standing right where others have already fallen through the ice. With the added weight of his suit and all of its various equipment, gadgets and weapons, wouldn’t Batman be in serious danger of falling through the cracking ice? Next, Batman lights a flare and throws it down onto that same cracking ice. Is this a good idea?

Worst of all, the flare ignites a trail of gunpowder which begins on the ice and ends up lighting up a makeshift Bat Symbol high atop a distant skyscraper. Did Batman arrange this gimmick all by himself? How long did it take him to lay that trail of gunpowder and wax artistic on the side of the building? Wouldn’t that time have been put to better use by rescuing Gordon and foiling Bane’s plans?

This flawed scene is a microcosm of the film’s lazy lapses of logic, but it’s not just story elements that miss the bull’s-eye. Everything, from the dialog to the pacing to the action scenes, just feels “off” here. Whereas the previous film was a flawless sensation, this third Batman installment is riddled with incongruent story devices and plot holes large enough to drive a Bat-Tank through with room to spare. Much like Wayne and the city he protects, the story here seems battered, fractured and beleaguered. In that regard, the narrative’s reflection of Wayne’s psyche is brilliant, but does it necessarily make for an enjoyable entertainment?

It’s hard to say if Nolan’s intention was to trigger a cathartic release in the audience over Bane’s avenging mission against corporate and political corruption, but it’s safe to say that there’s no way he could’ve predicted the film’s potential to produce anarchy in real life. I speak, of course, of the incident at the theater in Aurora, Colorado, where a young man, decked out in Bane garb, killed and wounded several patrons in a wanton slaughter. The shooting has tainted the film in profound and palpable ways—it’s not just an entertainment anymore, it’s a heinous headline. Ironically, the film’s message that evil is real and rampant is starkly validated by this opening night massacre. When entertainment inspires actions in real life and tragedy ensues, it’s hard to know where the blame should be placed. One thing’s for sure, no matter how well the film performs; the theater shooting will always stand out as an unfortunate footnote to whatever the movie achieves financially, critically or artistically. However unintentional, the movie has created its own monster…life imitating art has seldom been as bitterly realized.

It’s hard to imagine a darker, more psychologically complex film than
The Dark Knight, but Nolan has delved deeper into the sordid, corrupt and festering underbelly of Gotham while presenting us with a villain even more frightening (though not nearly as colorful) than the Joker. However, for all of its gritty realism, The Dark Knight Rises gives its audience absolutely nothing to cheer about. The movie is bleak for the sake of being bleak, and as such, is an extremely well-crafted, well-acted, well-written and well-directed movie that’s ultimately not enjoyable in the least. It’s entertaining but is nowhere close to being exhilarating. It’s hard to say where Nolan should’ve taken this film or even if a different plot would’ve produced a different result, but the direction he took is less than satisfactory, especially when one considers how well it was set up by The Dark Knight.

Perhaps that downer feeling comes from the knowledge that there’s no easy way to say goodbye to Bale, Caine, Freeman, Oldman and company. Perhaps the previous film set the bar impossibly high, bloating our expectations for a more triumphant capper to Nolan’s brilliantly dark trilogy. Perhaps the film with be looked upon more favorably as time passes? Perhaps the Dark Knight will rise again?

Rating: 3

The Amazing Spider-Man (PG-13)

Directed by: Marc Webb
Starring: Andrew Garfield
July 2012

Both films in Marvel’s
Fantastic Four franchise were mediocre affairs that failed to live up to their exceptional title. Here we have a movie with the word amazing in its title. The danger with using a superlative in a title is that if the project fails to live up to such boasting, the drubbing received from critics, audiences and the media could be unbearable. So then, does the new Spider-Man film live up to its lofty name?

Before addressing that inquiry, it’s important to answer the even bigger question looming over this film—why reboot the franchise since the last
Spider-Man movie was released in 2007? Isn’t it too soon for a new Spidey flick? With Sam Raimi’s trilogy fresh in our minds, it’s impossible to avoid a compare/contrast evaluation of the former Spider-Man (played by Tobey Maguire) and the new one (played by Andrew Garfield). While both casts, from top to bottom, are equally impressive, the edge in the director category clearly goes to Raimi, who beats Marc Webb (surely a cosmic practical joke linked director and project) handily. Raimi’s Spidey films are much more cinematic than Webb’s effort, which, save for the three or four action scenes, plays like a well-acted drama on Lifetime rather than a high-octane summer blockbuster. The action scene settings themselves are vastly different—Raimi’s take place on skyscrapers or on a high-speed train, while Webb’s take place on top of a corporate building, in a high school science lab or in the city sewer (though still contrived and predictable, this was an exciting setting for a melee).

As for the men inside the Spidey suit, Maguire infused his Peter Parker with a nerdy, angsty vibe, while Garfield is a bit more subdued and contemplative. Where Maguire’s Parker is giddy upon discovering that he has superpowers, Garfield’s Parker seems to take it all in stride, as if the enduing of superpowers was an everyday occurrence. To be fair, Garfield does show some emotion and excitement during the skateboard scene, but his response is noticeably more reserved than Maguire’s when he first learns how to climb walls and shoot webs.

In the original trilogy, Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) was written as a kind of floozy tasked with driving a wedge between Parker and his heartthrob, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Here, Gwen (Emma Stone) is the whip smart intern for Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) a.k.a. The Lizard. Stone is absolutely delightful in the film and brings an effective mixture of intelligence and compassion to the role. The one nitpick here is that she seems a bit too experienced and knowledgeable to still be in high school—the Juno Syndrome.

As for Ifans (
Pirate Radio), his character is neither as psychotic as Willem DaFoe’s Goblin nor as maniacal as Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus (we’ll leave the pathetic villains in Raimi’s third film out of it). Like Doc Ock, Connors has a redemptive act near the film’s conclusion, but his effectiveness as a villain is diminished by minimal screen time and shallow character development.

Where Peter’s aunt and uncle are concerned, you can toss a coin as to whether the original Cliff Robertson/Rosemary Harris pairing is better than the new Martin Sheen/Sally Field duo. One of the most interesting new characters is Denis Leary’s Captain Stacy. The “meet the parents” dinner where Peter insults the police force, and Stacy by extension, is quite amusing.

As for the movie’s visual effects, they’re serviceable if not remarkable—surely special effects were one of the main considerations in updating the franchise. Are these FX that much better than those employed in Raimi’s trilogy? I would argue that the cinematography, and perhaps the visual effects themselves, are more inventive and cinematic in the trilogy than in this film. Not quite the bold leap forward I was expecting.

The first
Spider-Man film was released on the heels of 9-11 and gave us a champion to cheer for—timing is everything and Spidey was the hero of the hour, the symbol of freedom we desperately needed to allay our fears and galvanize our resolve against the evil that exists, and frequently manifests itself, in our modern world. Spider-Man captured the zeitgeist like few films before or since. So then, what societal issues or ripped-from-the-headlines events does this new Spidey film broach? Well, other than ethics in genetics and the inability of law enforcers to keep us safe…nothing. This take on the wall crawler, like its predecessor, features teen angst aplenty, but we’ve seen it all before.

In the end,
The Amazing Spider-Man is an earnest film, but not necessarily an exciting film…one might even say it’s borderline boring at times. This is somewhat ironic when considering that Webb’s previous effort, (500) Days of Summer, was an indie sensation featuring fine performances, innovative direction and a narrative change-up to the typical dating movie formula.

Too soon to reboot? Time will tell, but if I’m honest with myself, I probably would’ve thought this film was pretty good if I’d never seen Raimi’s trilogy. That might not be fair to this effort, but you know what they say about life.

Rating: 2 1/2