Monday, 30 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

How do you top The Dark Knight? Simple. You don't.

For better or for worse, Christopher Nolan has concluded his epic Batman re-imagining with a very different type of film. The Dark Knight was the superhero version of Heat, a fast and frenetic face-off between Batman and the Joker. It was a cinematic tour-de-force and smashed $1 billion dollars at the worldwide box office. As such, you may have expected TDKR to follow the same formula. And maybe it would have done if this was just another sequel or the franchise had been handed to a lesser director, as occurred with the X-Men films. It would have made money but it wouldn't have reaped the five-star gold medals.

But, no, if Christopher Nolan, one of the greatest film-makers of our generation, has decided to return to the director's chair then it won't be to simply rehash familiar territory. Instead, Nolan means business. Because this isn't a mere sequel. This is the concluding part of a trilogy. And that changes everything.

The concluding part of a trilogy must do exactly that: conclude. Story strands established in the opening instalment must be revisited and resolved, long-forgotten villains will suddenly make a reappearance and much-loved characters must meet their end (whether it be happy or sad). And before all of that can happen, things have to reach an all-time low for our heroes: Frodo ditches Sam, Andy goes to college, the DeLorean runs out of gas and Ewoks die. As Harvey Dent once said: "The night is darkest before the dawn."

As you would expect, Nolan is a pro and observes trilogy protocol dutifully. This means we get crowd-pleasing reminders of the first two films, ranging from flashbacks to familiar faces, and the stakes are raised higher than ever. Bruce Wayne has seen better days: he is eight years older, walks with a cane and his company is on the verge of bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Batman is villified in order to protect the legacy of Harvey Dent and he is held responsible several murders committed by Dent after he became Two-Face. Both ego and alter-ego have taken a beating. And all of that is before Bane arrives with an army of terrorists and holds the city to ransom. As such, TDKR is the darkest and least fun of Nolan's Batman films: allies turn, backs break and Gotham crumbles. This means that the re-watch value is arguably low but at least it delivers in shocking the audience and upping the tension. For the first time in the Nolanverse, we feel genuine concern for Bruce.

Most of this concern arises from Tom Hardy's Bane: a buff, brutal strategist who mercilessly holds Gotham hostage. He is a villain so dangerous than even the League of Shadows kicked him out. Hardy is perfect casting for such a nemesis. Few actors can rival his physical presence, as seen in Bronson, and Hardy makes good use of his bulk. It could have stopped there. Bane could have been reduced to a glorified henchman, as was the case in the awful Batman and Robin

But Nolan's treatment of the character is more faithful to the comics and the script favours Bane's fierce intelligence as well. Hardy obliges by taking the frankly ingenious decision to give Bane a well-spoken voice. This voice is a bizarre blend of David Attenborough and Gandalf but it is more memorable and more chilling than Bane's fists. The voice exudes wisdom and cynicism (indeed, his first line is a quip outsmarting Aidan Gillen's CIA agent) and serves to make Bane even more intimidating and fearsome than if he was just a heavyweight terrorist. Quite simply: Bane is Batman's physical and mental superior.

Admittedly, in terms of performance, Bane is no Joker. His mask severely limits the range of Hardy's acting expressions and, aside from a few lines, he will never charm the audience by cracking jokes and jerking around. But let's not forget that the Joker is Batman's most iconic, charismatic and crowd-pleasing villain. Hell, he is the Batman villain. And in the case of TDK, Heath Ledger's interpretation of the Joker was an Oscar-winning, career-best performance. Bane was never going to live up to that. A less imaginative director might have tried. If Nolan wanted another Joker, then he would have introduced the Riddler (Johnny Depp!) and had some fun. But this wasn't about testing the Bat once again, this was about breaking the Bat. And, as comic book zens will tell you, it was Bane who famously broke the Bat. 

Incidentally, the closest thing to a Joker performance in TDKR comes courtesy of Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle, better known as Catwoman. Hathaway exudes sexiness and ass-kickery in her most controlled performance to date. The goofy days of The Princess Diaries and her emotive, hysterical role in Rachel Getting Married are long forgotten. Instead, this is a Hathaway more akin to Scarlett Johanson's Black Widow: cool, cunning, deadly and looking for redemption at any cost. Her Catwoman will keep you guessing until the end - villain, ally, love interest? - and will deliver some applaud-worthy moments along the way. Indeed, Hathaway's is the performance you will be reliving and quoting on the drive home.

...which is a shame because Nolan has assembled another superb A-list cast and none deserve to be overshadowed, least of all Christian Bale, who is often underrated for his three-film humanising portrayal of Bruce Wayne. And let's not forget Michael Caine's tear-jerking Alfred or Gary Oldman's dependable commissioner or Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox (or should that be Q?) whose gadgets always steal the show. Also, new to this film is Joseph Gordon-Levitt's cop John Blake, who gets as much screen-time as Bruce Wayne and further cements his status as a Hollywood leading man. And that is without drawing upon the huge supporting cast of familiar faces that have arisen throughout the trilogy, many taken from popular TV shows (Band of Brothers, Prison Break, Lost, The Wire, 24, Game of Thrones, Torchwood and more). You can have a lot of fun trying to spot them all.

But despite Nolan's reputation as King of the Ensemble, the Batman films have never been solely about the acting talent. Nolan has two further strengths, arguably more essential to his films' popularity.

The first is his ease with negotiating increasingly-elaborate action scenes and TDKR has the challenge of topping Inception's revolving corridor brawls. Nolan, never one to rest on his morels, ups the ante. So we get a motorbike chase with stockbrokers strapped to the back of the villains, we get a new flying Bat-vehicle for airborne assaults, we get a plane hijacking another plane and we get the much-publicised football game assault (although, this was the money-shot from the trailer and so it feels like old news). We also get the most brutal and prolonged fist-fight yet with Batman and Bane squaring off. Nolan crafts expert action-scenes: less Michael-Bay-frenzied-shaky-cam and more a James-Cameron-clear-and-controlled approach. And Hans Zimmer's score keeps the adrenaline pumping throughout.

Nolan's second unsurpassed strength is his ability to tell a story. Nolan has always been able to assemble a complex story structure without alienating his audience (Memento, Inception) and TDKR is no exception. Flashbacks and sub-plots and memories are all intricately interwoven into the main story, some lasting no more than a couple of seconds, but all serving their purpose to reveal more about Nolan's enigmatic characters. The impact of some of Nolan's twists would not be so great without the foreshadowing of these little snippets of back-story and it is testament to Nolan's subtlety that these snippets never feel forced, nor do they distract too much from the events occurring in Gotham. It would be nice to see Nolan put aside the big budget for his next film and craft another Prestige or Following.

So, having read all of that, surely TDKR is close to perfection? Well, no. 

Ten days after its release, there are some common criticisms arising. They range from the bizarre ('I can't understand what Bane is saying!') to the petty ('It takes itself too seriously!'). Several have noted that the start was fairly slow-paced and failed to live up to the opening of TDK. But considering TDK has possibly the best opening to any movie ever, it would be fair to cut Nolan some slack on this count.

And, yes, the re-watch value is possibly the lowest of the series. Of the three films, TDKR is the least standalone film and knowledge of the previous instalments is essential for maximum enjoyment. A newcomer to the series would be baffled by the footage of Two-Face ('What the hell was that thing?!') and the reappearance of Ras Al Ghal ('Hey, look, Liam Neeson!'). But you would expect a certain amount of foreknowledge when delivering the concluding part of a trilogy.

There is valid criticism about the length of the film. 165 minutes is a long time to be sat in the cinema. Not that it feels particularly long but a trim would have made it leaner and meaner. As Stephen King once said: the second draft should be the first draft minus 10%. Nolan could have severed several of the sub-plots, such as the three soldiers who show up and get hung almost immediately, Gordon-Levitt's bus-load of children, Matthew Modine's police chief and whatever was happening with that lispy rival businessman. And, as ever, Nolan puts in one action scene too many. Did we really need a climatic chase scene after the Talia Al Ghul twist?

It could also be argued that Nolan wavers slightly into cliché territory at times, which is a shame because Nolan usually reinvents the wheel. But TDKR features a romantic encounter by a roaring fire and the Jedi-like return of Ras Al Ghul and a ticking time bomb diverted at the last second and the aforementioned bus-load of children (not just children, orphans!) that need bravely rescuing. Most of this is harmless but it is very clichéd for the gritty Nolan-verse.

But even five-star films have their flaws and be under no doubt, TDKR is a five-star film. It is unlikely to be the Film of the Year (Skyfall vs. Hobbit) but it is superior, well-crafted, masterful story-telling and a worthy swansong to Nolan's trilogy. 

Like Bruce Wayne, the Nolan Bat films leave their own legacy. Their serious handling of the Batman legend breathed new life into the caped crusader, bridging the gap between escapism and realism. The films united cinema-goers, pleasing regular crowds with mainstream thrills whilst retaining enough integrity to earn the respect of film critics. And Nolan delivered a superhero trilogy with the scale of an epic: a seemingly-endless cast, a story that spans decades and action that sprawls across city-wide, world-wide locations.

Above all else, it is a complete, consistent and concluded trilogy, the vision of one director and one of our best directors: Christopher Nolan. As such, it will sit alongside Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Back to the Future and Toy Story as one of cinema's few great trilogies.

Maybe it's about time that we made Christopher Nolan a knight? #sirchristophernolan

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man is best described with borrowed words from The Dark Knight. Specifically: he isn't the hero that we need right now. But he's the hero that we deserve.

After all, audiences were not exactly crying out for a Spider-Man reboot. The Sam Raimi trilogy only concluded five years ago and many still remember it fondly. 

And why not? Back in 2001, the reverse of the above statement was true: Raimi's Spider-Man was the hero that audiences needed. In the wake of 9/11, a dispirited country needed a film where an all-America hero saved New York from a maniacal terrorist. Peter Parker embodies the American dream as he journeys from zero to hero and his suit matches the colours of the American flag. The world needed Spidey and they also needed something to raise their spirits after the recent horrors inflicted on America and the resulting War on Terror. 

All of this was dutifully provided by Raimi. His Spider-Man trilogy is light-hearted, straight-forward entertainment: often fun, sometimes silly and always uncomplicated. Spidey gets the girl, beats the baddy and everyone goes home happy with a belly full of popcorn.

And so we didn't necessarily need a Spider-Man do-over. 

However, we certainly deserved one. There are numerous flaws with Raimi's Spider-Man films. The performances are forgettable, the script is bland and the action scenes look surprisingly dated. It's shocking how much CGI has evolved in the past decade. Plus, Raimi sat in the director's chair. It goes without saying that Raimi was a popular choice - this is the guy that directed Evil Dead 2! - but, on the other hand, this is the guy that directed Evil Dead 2, a horror renowned for being ridiculously entertaining but also completely ridiculous. 

As such, for every iconic upside-down Spidey kiss or Doc Ock splitscreen tentacle melee, we also have to endure a corny exchange with Aunt May or Spider-Man turning emo or an improvised jazz dance or an exposition-heavy British reporter. There is also far too much flag-waving patriotism, as seen when the citizens of New York start bombarding the Green Goblin with junk: "You mess with Spidey, you mess with New York!" My gag reflex is tingling.

As such, we deserved a reboot - whether we realised that we needed it or not - and thankfully Sony and director Marc Webb (most appropriate name ever) obliged.

Enter The Amazing Spider-Man: a sexier, cooler interpretation of Peter Parker's origin story, bursting with charisma and personality thanks to its talented cast members. Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker and Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy slip effortlessly into their lead roles and their natural likeability means they instantly outshine Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst from the Raimi trilogy, both of who were bland, whiny and uninspiring.

James Vanderbilt's script helps the performances. Every character is handled with care (even the school bully has a story arc) and the one-liners are generously shared out. Michael Sheen's Uncle Ben and Denis Leary's Captain Stacy raise the odd smile in their supporting roles, although the biggest laugh is courtesy of Peter Parker toying with a car-thief: "You discovered my weakness! Small knives! Achoo!" 

Vanderbilt's script is also a more modern take on the characters. He recognises that the leads are high-school kids and approaches the characters as such. We therefore get a Spider-Man who skateboards and shows-off and gets awkward around cute girls and plays games on his SmartPhone whilst waiting for the villain to arrive. We also get a 21st century Gwen Stacy who is smart and heroic, as opposed to Dunst's Mary Jane whose prime function was to dangle helplessly from various buildings.

The Amazing Spider-Man will also win favours amongst comic book purists. This Peter Parker designs his own web-slingers as depicted in the comics so the fans can finally stop complaining about Parker naturally spawning webs from his wrists as seen in the Raimi trilogy. Fans will equally be happy to see the Lizard on-screen, played by an oddly-cast Rhys Ifans, after teasing cameos in the earlier films of a pre-transformation Dr Curt Connors. And the traditional Stan Lee cameo is a particular treat.

As director, Marc Webb has assembled an immersive and engaging film. It would be tempting to say this is a darker and grittier Spider-Man but this is still a long way from the Dark Knight Nolanverse. But it does feel more real than the colourful Raimi offerings. Webb's attention-to-detail ensures that each location is true-to-life and more documentary than studio set. Webb is also an actor's director and naturally he gets some very believable performances from his cast, especially when utilising the chemistry between Garfield and Stone. No less than you would expect from the director of 500 Days of Summer.

The Amazing Spider-Man is not without problems, most caused from a horrible sense of deja vu. After all, we have seen the Peter Parker origin story before (getting bit, learning to swing, Uncle Ben's death) no matter how differently it is packaged. And how many times have we seen superheroes face-off on top of a skyscraper? Also, the Lizard is new to the bigscreen but hardly a villain to rave about. Presumably, the Lizard was chosen as the equivalent of Batman Begins' Scarecrow: a minor villain designed to test the hero without overshadowing him. Which begs the question, who will be Spider-Man's Joker?

But the reboot series is just getting started. Sony are clearly franchise-building and happy to take it slow. The film ends with both leads still in high-school so the Daily Bugle days could be entire films away. The opening intrigue surrounding Peter Parker's parents looks set to continue in a multi-film arc, as does the anonymous villain who cameos during the closing credits (blatantly Norman Osborne AKA The Green Goblin). They also made the smart move of keeping the Lizard alive so he can reappear throughout the sequels, again like Nolan's Scarecrow in his Bat trilogy. 

In any case, the release date for Spider-Man 2 has been set for 2 May 2014 and now that the origin has been dutifully revamped, the Sony team can start exploring some new (more amazing) territory in the sequel.

In the meantime, audiences have finally been given the Spider-Man film that they deserve.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Ice Age 4

Unlike Pixar films, the Ice Age films have never been essential viewing but they have always been consistently fun, funny and well-designed, with plenty of heart and character.

After the breakout hit of the first Ice Age in 2002 (which single-handedly saved 20th Century Fox's animation wing), the sequels have wisely blended the familiar with the new. The much-loved characters have remained - Sid the annoying Sloth, Manny the grumpy Mammoth, Diego the cynical sabre-toothed tiger and the acorn-addicted Scrat - whilst their adventures and companions evolve with every film.

No two Ice Age films are the same: the first was the animation equivalent of Three Men and a Baby, the second was a race against time and the third was a rescue mission with dinosaurs. Now, we have a pirate adventure with icebergs instead of ships, whereby Manny, Diego and Sid have to get back to Manny's family after Scrat single-handedly splits the continents apart. This variation is an admirable attempt to stop the formula getting stale.

Manny's story arc as a family man has served as an emotional anchor throughout the franchise and also helps keep things fresh. Over the four films, we have seen him develop from a lonely bachelor to leader of his herd to husband to expectant father. In Ice Age 4, he is now the father of a headstrong teenage daughter and naturally he does not approve of her friends because he wants the best of her. It is an old story, as is often the case with child-friendly animations, but at least it has been given the Ice Age twist. Maybe the next film will be the Ice Age interpretation of Father of the Bride?

The comedy set pieces are typically top-notch. An encounter with enticing sirens is particularly hilarious, not to mention a Braveheart-style moment with gung-ho hyraxes (possibly, an attempt to rival the penguins of Madagascar?) but the true stand-out is the ever-reliable Scrat. Scrat has long been the franchise's ace and he appears for some slapstick humour whenever the audience is getting a bit fidgety. His escalating addiction to acorns and his self-sacrificing attempts to retrieve them remains an instant crowd-pleaser, often framing the movie to ensure it starts and ends with a belly-laugh. The opening of Ice Age 4  is possibly the best (and most bizarre) Scrat-astrophe to date.

There are flaws with Ice Age 4. The franchise certainly has suffered from serious bouts of stunt-casting over the years. The original Ice Age, as with many Pixar films, utilised the talents of numerous lesser-known actors, prioritising great voices over big names. Whereas, three films later, we now have Jennifer Lopez as a sabre-tooth cat, Nicki Minaj and rapper Drake as sassy mammoths and anyone else who happens to be popular at the moment is given two lines to say as an extra. The film unashamedly showboats its big names over the closing credits where we get shots of everyone recording their lines. It feels a little cheap.

That said, not all new additions feel forced. The casting of Peter Dinklage (Tyrion from Game of Thrones) as villainous captain, Gut, is a welcome addition to the cast. His deep voice is perfect for an animated film and he injects his prehistoric ape with plenty of snarling charisma. Furthermore, Sid's grandmother (voiced by Wanda Sykes), another new addition, has her own share of scene-stealing moments, particularly when her pet Precious shows up. Let's hope they return for Ice Age 5.

In a nutshell, Ice Age 4 is another solid instalment in the franchise. Unlike Pixar, the Ice Age films will never be heralded as an Oscar-winning masterpiece. But provided they keep mixing up the formula whilst retaining the same four core characters, the series will continue to sell tickets and provide entertaining, highly-visual escapism for audiences around the world. 

And based on this evidence, it could be another four films before this series is extinct.