Friday, 20 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

"You don't owe these people anymore. You've given them everything." "Not everything, not yet..."

The quote above applies to this film on so many levels. At whatever angle you come from with this film, it just has that sense of finality about it. After plunging fear into Gotham's criminal underbelly in Batman Begins, and saving the city from the unhinged chaos of a madman in The Dark Knight, Batman himself owes it to the cinematic world to go out with a bang and book himself in the pantheon of great cinematic trilogies. Furthermore the saga's visionary director, Christopher Nolan owes it to himself to end the story he so magnificently started in 2005. It's the most anticipated film of the year. It's the film fans have been waiting for since they walked out of seeing its predecessor in 2008. So the question, quite rightly, is; does it live up to its phenomenal hype? 

The story picks up eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, the Batman has vanished and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) now a recluse after taking the fall for the crimes of Harvey Dent and in turn Gotham has become a much more peaceful place because of it. Of course this is only the calm before the storm as a new evil force named Bane (Tom Hardy) arrives in Gotham along with the mysterious Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), forcing Batman out of retirement, hellbent on dragging the city down into the tenth level of hell. 

Christian Bale's portrayal of Batman has probably been parodied to death over the years for the ostentatious voice in dire need of a cough drop. Nevertheless his journey as Bruce Wayne has been nothing short of cinematic brilliance, and in TDKR he gives arguably his greatest bow as the estranged billionaire. Channelling Wayne's old wounds from the past two films on top of the suffering he faces over the course of the final film, especially in the mesmerising second act, Bale's tender moments he shared with Michael Caine's Alfred were every bit as wonderful to watch as the heart to hearts with Hardy's monstrous Bane.

One does perhaps wonder how Nolan's vision for the final film would've differed had the late, great Heath Ledger had still been with us (he was contracted to appear in The Dark Knight Rises in some capacity), and though his unforgettable turn as The Joker is never referenced, his ghost looms large over the feature with the sense of dread and spirit for complete anarchy he invoked so often previously. 

Which brings us nicely to the main antagonist of the feature, Bane. Tom Hardy encapsulates the character that was grossly misrepresented in Batman & Robin as one of the few of The Dark Knight's rouge gallery who can match him on both a mental and a physical level. Like Bale's Batman voice, Hardy's muffled sinister voice will be a source of great amusement to many YouTube videos, but it doesn't matter as his actions speak far more coherently and with much more impact than any of his speeches ever would.  

Anne Hathaway's Catwoman is probably the best version of the character ever seen on screen and at times steals the show away from both Bale and Hardy. It's the first version to fully understand the multiple shades of grey Selina Kyle has beneath her catsuit, without the supernatural nonsense of Batman Returns and whatever the hell that was Halle Berry was trying to pull off in her redundant spin-off film. In TDKRs Catwoman is a beautifully realised femme fatale, sexy and deadly, hero and villain and both friend and foe to Batman.

The supporting roles were littered with probably the greatest ensemble of actors I've seen on film since, well probably Christopher Nolan's Inception. Gary Oldman's tired and jaded journey as Commissioner James Gordon is the definitive version of the character, Michael Caine shines bright and will make audiences shed tears as Alfred Pennyworth, Morgan Freeman lends his cool class as Bat-gadget supremo Lucius Fox while newcomers Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's only reaffirm the conclusion that Christopher Nolan can assemble any actor he so chooses. There are also a few cameos from past characters of the film's series to help it come full circle, but those reveals won't be spoiled in this review.

Was it perfect though? Truthfully - and please no death threats - its story was too guilty of doing what many final chapters of the great cinematic sagas are often accused of doing and that's cramming far more than was entirely necessary resulting in at times a messy story and slightly muddled character development. It maybe could have benefited from losing 15 minutes off its running time, but then when you've got near three hours of the biggest Batman film ever attempted, yeah you'd forgive these shortcomings. And for every time I want to roll my eyes, I found myself smiling more and more or my emotions heightening to the brink of tears

Christopher Nolan's evolution since his first Batman film and his eye for the grand spectacle came to its pinnacle with TDKR, perhaps just eclipsing the heights he reached with Inception. The opening scene of the film itself, which felt partially influenced by the opening scene of the previous Batman film, where the audience is introduced to Hardy's Bane is worth the admission fee alone, especially when you realise how little CGI is used in the creation of it.

Invoking the fear of a post 9/11 world, along with the extreme right wing reaction to it in the fallout, in his previous two Batman films, Nolan goes to great lengths to set his dark, gritty, mature finale to the Batman saga in a financially ravaged, occupy Wall Street-esque hell. Making his Batman films not only the best, but also one of the true cinematic sagas of our time and generation. And in stark contrast making Marvel's Avengers universe look like a feeble cosplay exercise in comparison. Shame the same can't be said for the rest of DC's characters on the big screen these days.

Final Thoughts
Despite its obvious shortcomings, Christopher Nolan delivers a grandiose finish full of spectacle, emotion and near Oscar-worthy performances from many of its cast. Where Warner Bros decides to take Batman next on the big screen is a thought for another day, for now just bask in knowing a superhero, a comic book adaptation is now recognised as one of the great cinematic trilogies and one of the biggest, in every sense of the word, blockbusters of all time. The Dark Knight Rises. The Dark Knight Rules.


The Dark Knight Rises is in cinemas everywhere now. And yes I know you've probably already seen it when this review goes live. 

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Dr Seuss' The Lorax

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."
- Dr Seuss

Hollywood hasn't been overly faithful to the timeless works of Dr Seuss in recent years. After the tragic failings witnessed in the live action adaptations of The Cat in The Hat and How The Grinch Stole Christmas, avid Seuss enthusiasts would be right in thinking the great American story-teller is probably spinning in his grave. Things weren't necessarily helped by the CGI adaptation of Horton Hears A Who, but at least as a stand alone film it's both entertaining and infectious in its overall enjoyment. Following in the footsteps of Horton comes The Lorax, Seuss' environmentally aware parable about the extinction of trees and the countless warnings from the story's title character which precedes it. 

It's not impossible to make a great film out of such short children's books. Spike Jonze proved as much when he fantastically brought to life the late Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are to the big screen. The Lorax nearly does such a job, but rather frustratingly the screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul blink first and get too bogged down in modernising the story with needless pop culture references, I imagine most kids aren't going to be particularly bothered about, and a ham fisted teenage love story it simply didn't need. Which is a true shame, especially when you compare it to Pixar's like-minded and infinitely superior environmentally weary tale, Wall-e.  

Nevertheless it would be harsh to say it wasn't entertaining, at times genuinely funny and even quite heartfelt when it eventually got round to it core message. The film features some gorgeous animation staying true to the vivid, unique vision of Seuss' source material and even features some terrific vocal performances from its cast. 

Danny Devito was particularly marvellous as the title character, typically what you'd expect from the cranky, brutally honest, now institutional actor. In fact the moments featuring the Lorax himself was where the film shined its brightest. One particular scene, not originally in the source material, where he appears for the first time and, along with the rest of the animals of the forest, mourns the first tree chopped down was a beautifully constructed moment the film should have strived for more often. 

Ed Helms was good fun as The Once-ler; delivering a nice blend of comedy, innocence and gormless buffoonery while having a terrific chemistry when it came to bantering with Devito's Lorax and Zac Efron's faceless protagonist. Personally though the film's comedy was at its best amongst the crazy movements of the animals which populate the forest The Once-ler inevitably destroys. Particularly the bears. The chipmunk voiced fish I could probably take or leave, but hey the kids will enjoy it. I think...

The musical numbers were well written and in the more tender and sombre moments the great John Powell delivered a trademark grandiose score - if you haven't heard his Oscar nominated work on Dreamworks' rather brilliant How To Train Your Dragon I seriously suggest you do so as soon as possible.  However it's sad and a bit of an injustice to Seuss' incredible writing that more of his playful, at times sheer mental, dialouge and poetry wasn't scattered throughout. The most notable was the quote placed at the beginning of this review. All involved might want to read that quote another couple of times before tackling the CGI Cat in the Hat adaptation they have planned next - but to be fair it can't be any worse than the awful Mike Myers version. 

Final Thoughts
If you're a parent and looking for something to grab your kids' attention for 90 minutes, The Lorax performs its duties as well as any animated tale you'll see in the cinema this Summer. Despite its loose and liberal tribute to the source material this version of The Lorax is still full of slapstick antics, well timed dialouge and some entertaining performances from its voice cast. However where it loses marks and will continually do so in most modern Seuss adaptations is in its nonchalant attitude and lack of ambition to reach out to its wider audience and tackle the story's biggest themes. Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot...


The Lorax is in cinemas across the UK on Friday July 27th, 2012.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Indie Game: The Movie

James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot's insight into the independent video gaming market is an astonishing documentary for reasons which transcend the industry which it highlights. Following the trials and tribulations in the development cycle of two of the highest profile independently released games on the market of the last couple of years; Fez and Super Meat Boy - both exclusive to the XBox360, meaning a PS3 devotee like yours truly unfortunately hasn't had the chance to fully appreciate what's on offer. Nevertheless it doesn't dampen the almost life-affirming appreciation for the developers of the games and the core values they represent.

The film largely follows two reasonably different creative processes which in essence represent the same self doubts and mini victories all artists go through when crafting something entirely from scratch. If you're a traditional artist, writer, musician or film-maker there is countless qualities about the journeys which Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes of Super Meat Boy and Phil Fish and Renaud Bedard of Fez go through towards the completion of their respective games you'll find incredibly relatable. It also gives cynics of the industry confirmation, which many devotees already know, that computer games can be a hugely expressive art-form in itself. Not something to be looked down upon nor scoffed at.

The moments involving McMillen and particularly Refenes were the most emotional; a true mixture of profound joy, frustration and even at times soul destroying sadness. While they were both burdened with a playful anticipation from the gaming community on the internet, Phil Fish was faced with something far more intimidating. After wowing audiences in 2007 with a simple tech demo, the level of expectation placed upon Fish's shoulders transcended into this seemingly never-ending and unbelievably ambitious quest met with delays and frustration to the point where Fish was verbally abused across the net.

Similar to watching the brilliant Banksy documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop based around the street art movement, the mentality of these men and their like-minded peers was almost a form of creative rebellion. A huge middle finger to the mass gaming market constantly obsessed with this summer blockbuster arrogance of bigger is better, sacrificing innovation and compelling story telling for a points based first person shooter online gaming culture ala Modern Warfare.

As well as being hugely enlightening the film-making itself is of the highest quality. The crisp presentation, the in-game highlights, the absolutely gorgeous camera work makes the film one of the true stand outs of the year. More so the dark, moody, beautifully ambient soundtrack by Jim Guthrie is probably worth seeking out on its own.

Final Thoughts
Provocative, inspirational and profoundly emotional. Indie Game: The Movie is more than a simple documentary on the gaming industry, it highlights the emotions all independent creatives suffer through for their art. If you write, draw, compose music, create comics there is a quality about this film which will speak to you on numerous levels. And may also leave you believing in what you're doing.


Indie Game The Movie is available to buy from here ::

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

Ever since I was a child I've pretty much idolised two superheroes in my life. Sure I'm a self-confessed comic book geek, read the medium as much as I would a simple paperback and very much versed in the worlds of both Marvel and DC. But of the countless array of characters both have given the world over the past 70+ years, two have stood out above all. One is Batman and the other is Spider-Man.

Unlike The Avengers which has taken the world and box offices by storm since it came out back in April, and The Dark Knight Rises which fans have been waiting for since they left the cinema seeing its predecessor in 2008, expectation around The Amazing Spider-Man has been somewhat modest at best. Rebooting a phenomenally successful film saga just five years after the third instalment came out seems a bit drastic to the most cynical of eyes, but then if you were unfortunate enough to catch Spider-Man 3 in the cinema you wouldn't exactly blame them. For the few who haven't; it wasn't exactly Batman & Robin bad, but in hindsight it perhaps wasn't far off.

So out goes Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire and in comes the younger, hipper Marc Webb (director of 500 Days of Summer) and Andrew Garfield in the title role. Like the original Raimi film, The Amazing Spider-Man concentrates on the famous web-slinger's origin story, although in a slightly darker and less colourful setting than the original. Peter Parker the socially awkward science nerd is replaced with Peter Parker the geek chic, photographer kid from next door. However the chips on his shoulder very much remain.

The story, at its core, delves into Peter's struggles for a father figure ever since his parents (extremely brief but welcomed appearance of Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) left him as a child and realising the hard way the responsibility of becoming a real hero. Unlike the Raimi films, Webb uses this opportunity to stretch out Peter's high school life which were skimmed over in the first 20 minutes of the original film. Here we see him meet his real high school sweetheart Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone), come to blows with her over protective, police officer father, George Stacey (Denis Leary) and develop a working relationship with his father's former lab partner Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) who eventually turns into the villain of the piece known as The Lizard.

Instead of using the noticeably comic book like vibrancy of the world Sam Raimi created in the original trilogy, Marc Webb opts to take some of his cues from the Christopher Nolan school of rebooting superheroes. You're bound to know the routine by now; slightly gritty with a lot of 'real world' grounding (roll your eyes accordingly if you've heard this one before...). And the story largely falls in line with this, The Amazing Spider-Man doesn't necessarily come out all guns blazing with spectacle, but more than makes up for it with the care and attention given to Parker's journey into the hero with great power and great responsibility.

Garfield was terrific in the title role, he attained Parker's sympathetic qualities and angst while still enabling himself to turn on the charm, wit and sarcasm while donning the red and blue spandex of Spider-Man. He also does a great job of reminding the audience every so often something we tend to forget when we think of Spider-Man, he is essentially still a kid at the beginning of his journey.  He's brash, he's fearless, he's occasionally a bit selfish and petulant and this rings true in the moments when he first becomes Spider-Man and in a couple of run ins with resident school bully Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) - both before and after he gains his powers.

It's hard to not love Emma Stone in whatever role she plays these days, and her portrayal as the charming, graceful, bubbly Gwen Stacey is no different. The scenes she shares with Garfield are some of the films true highlight's, and clearly where Webb - having found success in this formula with the brilliant anti-romantic comedy 500 Days of Summer - felt most at ease.

Webb's handling of The Lizard must be commended despite a lot of clumsy CGI renderings which disjointed the feature at various points. Next to The Dark Knight, Spider-Man probably has the most memorable and impressive rouge gallery in comic books. Opting to use The Lizard echoed Nolan's use of The Scarecrow in Batman Begins in many ways, it was a frightful antagonist to inject a bit of fantastical flair into the film, while also the villain's Jekyll and Hyde duality and circumstance was a way of bringing the hero into the larger world of his own universe and the potentially bigger sequel to come. Where The Scarecrow brought Batman into the world of Arkham Asylum and all the psychotic inmates with it, The Lizard brought Spider-Man in line with potentially the next film's major villain Norman Osborn/Oscorp; whom turns into arguably Spider-Man's main nemesis, The Green Goblin.

While there's no J Jonah Jameson in The Amazing Spider-Man to steal the spotlight this time round (John Slattery for this series, Marc? Yeah?), the supporting cast of Leary as Captain Stacey, Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben and the ever elegant Sally Field as Aunt May were terrific.

No matter how many times you see it, no matter how many different camera angles in how many different movies, the imagery of Spider-Man swinging around the skyline of New York will still give fans of the films goosebumps, more so when put next to the majestic soundtrack scored by James Horner. Whereas some of The Lizard's CGI was disappointing, Spider-Man's felt much more authentic. During production Webb decided to shoot as many practical scenes of Spidey web-slinging as possible and in the final cut the difference is striking. It's simply a shame he didn't use some practical prosthetics for Ifans' Lizard too.

Like Webb's previous film, the use of music played a huge part, more so than perhaps any comic book film I've seen in quite some time. It was littered with emotional, grungey, singer songwriter montages. Some core audiences might find this distracting but I think, for the world Webb is creating, it lends itself wonderfully to the imagery.

Final Thoughts
The Amazing Spider-Man largely lives up to its own billing. Andrew Garfield gives a compelling account of the personal woes - and there's a lot of them - inflicted upon Peter Parker in his journey to becoming the iconic web-slinger. While the set pieces don't live in the memory as much as some featured in the original trilogy, this film's general enjoyment, playful humour, romantic chemistry, darker themes and larger plan for its inevitable sequels will leave die hard fans begging for more.


The Amazing Spider-Man is in cinemas everywhere now.