Review: The Dark Knight Rises (no spoilers)

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As much as I wanted to see it, The Dark Knight Rises is a difficult film for me to review. Not only am I ambivalent about the finished product, but even elaborating on my mixed feelings would invoke spoilers.

Try to avoid hearing discussions about it. You’d be a fool not to have seen Batman Begins and The Dark Knight first, but the less you know going into TDKR the better.

Director Christopher Nolan has fascinated audiences with how seriously he’s handled this series. Some of his choices proved brilliant when they originally seemed terrible. But although he’s a slick and creative filmmaker, none of his films are perfect. I’ll try to keep this brief:

  • Christian Bale topped his previous performances as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Yes, he still did the voice, but somehow it didn’t bother me. By this point we just go with it. His dialogue behind the mask could’ve used a tweak or two.
  • Michael Caine, though featured less in this final installment, acted his ass off.
  • Gary Oldman shined in all his grizzled, I’m-too-old-for-this-shit, veteran cop glory.
  • Morgan Freeman was charming as usual. Nothing new there.
  • Marion Cotillard. I will critique her role as Bruce Wayne’s new love interest with a curt nod of approval.
  • To my surprise and relief, Anne Hathaway nailed it as Catwoman. Most people questioned her casting. We all felt pessimistic about the high-tech update of the 60’s TV show costume. A few more gimmicks would’ve been nice, but whatever. Somehow it worked beautifully on screen and she emerged as my favorite character.
  • Tom Hardy had the difficult task of following in the footsteps of Heath Ledger. Again, much of the disappointment people are going to feel is from comparing this movie to the last. Hardy did not quite steal the show like we wanted, but he was indeed fantastic as Bane. He was the perfect combination of intelligence, brutality, intimidation and gravitas. Memorable… but not quite phenomenal, which is a shortcoming I can only blame on the writing.
  • Oh, the writing. There were fallacies with The Dark Knight that we forgave or poked at after the fact because it did such a great job kicking our ass. (“Did the Joker just stun everyone else in the jail with the explosion or… holy shit, look at him stealing that cop car.”) The plot holes in The Dark Knight Rise are a bit wide. It asks you to suspend a lot of disbelief, even for a superhero movie. Forgivable? Maybe. Debatably. But there were certainly some fuzzy geographic and chronological gaps that made me think “Hmm. Sloppy.”
  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt was great, but I don’t like where the writers ultimately decided to go with him. (The only time I actually groaned in my seat involved a later scene with him and an admin woman.)
  • A clever appearance by Cillian Murphy, but not enough of him.
  • The action was superb.
  • The “Bat” was awesome and I’m happy they included it.
  • I’m glad Nolan finally learned how to film fight scenes.
  • They noticeably overcompensated when they re-dubbed/augmented Bane’s voice.
  • A suspenseful climax and a great final act worthy of the film’s grand ambitions.
  • People are going to be split on the ending. It worked for me.

In summary, more satisfying than Batman Begins. Less jaw-dropping than The Dark Knight. Nolan chose to tie it back to the first film instead of delving deeper into the underbelly of the second. Not the direction I wanted but, again, maybe it just doesn’t get any deeper than the Joker.

I admire the scope of The Dark Knight Rises, even if it doesn’t always cover the distance (literally and figuratively). Watch it. Enjoy. Learn to like it. Despite the problems, it’s going to be a LONG time before Hollywood puts this much thought into another comic book movie.

I give it a B.

Burning Man and the Failure of “Radical Inclusion”

Let’s get this straight: I love Burning Man. The fact that you can come from any walk of life and be made to feel at home is a wonderful thing. I am also NOT one of those suffering from the common compulsion to bludgeon people over the head with the Ten Principles as if they were the Ten Commandments chiseled on an irresistibly aerodynamic slab of stone.

In my opinion, the principle of Radical Inclusion is the most flawed. It was poorly conceived by its writers and poorly executed by us, the participants.

Let’s start with the semantics. The Burning Man website details Radical Inclusion as “Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.” That’s all great. Was this the definition you had in mind? It sounds like regular inclusiveness to me.

When you add the word “radical” to your instructions, that means you want people to take it to the extreme. Burners tend to do just that. Self-expression? Go for it! Self-reliance? Absolutely. Inclusion? Ehhh. Do you know what’s radically inclusive? Prisons and whorehouses. So big shocker:

1) Burning Man is overpopulated. In 2011, we had the “Ticketocalypse.” In 2012, we had the “Ticket Fiasco.” But even before our mellow was harshed with the ugly reality of scarcity, veteran burners were learning that bigger is not better. It’s a pain in the ass. Ask anyone who was there in the mid-90s and they’ll agree that a lot of the edgier aspects of the event were sacrificed to accommodate the growing crowds. Out with the dynamite. In with the glowstick. What pisses me off is when someone matter-of-factly declares these sacrifices were part of the necessary evolution. Like BM is a middle-aged adult who outgrew his wild, college-year antics. Fuck. You. You know what Burning Man is? It’s a morbidly obese 26-year-old who can’t run and play outdoors anymore.

And maybe there was no stopping it. Between amazing photographs, viral videos and Malcolm in the Middle losing his virginity, perhaps critical mass was inevitable. But did it have to happen now? Did we really need a righteous notion of Radical Inclusion fueling the motormouths of every glassy-eyed fire twirler trying to indoctrinate the clerk who sells him his nitrous? But so be it. We’ve got the 3rd largest city in Nevada now. And incidentally…

2) Cities necessitate exclusivity. Yahoos. Tourists. Frat boys. Darktards. Sparkle ponies. Shirtcockers. Burnier-than-thou. There’s a lot of fun words for people we don’t like. On our respective journeys to becoming jaded veterans, we rack up some bad encounters.

There’s a myth that Burning Man is full of passive hippies that let you do, say and take whatever you want. Can you blame me for developing some reflexive aggressiveness? We should all be prepared to use phrases like “Get your hands off my friend” or “That’s not your food, asshole” or “Wave your glowsticks in my face again and I’ll slap you in the fucking throat.” It makes you wonder who decided to radically include these people to begin with?

Of course the real BM horror stories are tales of misplaced trust. Moochers. Thieves. Narcs. Rapists. (Yes, I just included undercover cops amongst sexual predators.) Who did you trust with your property? Who did you let into your camp? Sorry, kids. Trick-or-treating is dead.

Now on the other side of this coin…

3) Plenty of good people feel excluded. The days of the Cacophony Society are long gone. The anarchic misfit no longer reins. Guns? Forget about it. Fire? Strictly controlled. Pranks? You’ll be lucky if your own camp tolerates an email hoax. I don’t want to blame the rise of the sound camp for everything (although I’ll probably write about that later), but the cool kids have taken over the party.

Don’t get me wrong. I love to dance. I love the music. It often suits the mood perfectly. It juxtaposes wonderfully against the landscape. But the club/concert vibe the large sound camps have superimposed over Burning Man’s culture is not always so warm and fuzzy.

How many do we need? How important are celebrity DJs? How many people do they really need? How much precedence do they take? Does it matter if they profit year-round from their branding as Burning Man music?

But I digress. The real question: Are we so busy chasing and trying to be the cool kids on the playa that we have no time for the underdogs? I’m talking about the introvert everyone accuses of not “participating.” The girl no one wants to dance with. The geek in drab hiking clothes who had no idea what he was getting into. The ones who can’t feed your status or your ego. The playa is full of accidental loners who feel friendless and uninvited.

Some would argue that we already go out of our way to welcome the wayward stranger. What I’m calling for is a radical redefining of the Radical Inclusion principle. Instead of actively stuffing our dusty streets, let’s discover and appreciate the hidden tales, talents and character of the people with whom we already share our city.

So to all of you, welcome home.

*Also, no offense to the Front Porch! I just needed a picture of a crowd. Sorry guys!

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

So here were my prejudices going into the movie:

I loved the 2002 Spider-Man the FIRST time around. Big budget comic book movies were still pretty new, so we all forgave the movie its flaws because it was a mostly well-done, big screen debut for the character. I never felt the need to own the dvd.

Spider-Man 2 may be the best one of the Raimi films. Origin out of the way. Alfred Molina kicked ass as Doc Ock.

We’ve all reached the consensus that Spider-Man 3 was a studio-micromanaged slap in the face. So much dancing! So much crying! So much to hate! So much for Mr. Raimi.

A lot of people bitch. I was glad they rebooted the series. It was about time for some fresh blood and a different perspective from a fresh set of eyes.

After catching an early, no-frills matinee, here’s my critique.

THE GOOD:

Spidey’s a smart-ass. This is the Peter Parker they should’ve given us a long time ago.  He’s a good-hearted underdog, but he’s not a constipated boy scout. Peter was raised in the big city and it shows. When he gets his powers, the confidence becomes apparent. When the mask is on, he just lets it go. In Raimi’s films, the lack of this evolution was the biggest letdown for me. (You know, that and Venom.)

He’s a little off-kilter. Andrew Garfield is hands down superior to Tobey Macguire. Silly as it sounds, Garfield said he studied spiders while crafting the role. One review compared his twitchiness to Jeff Goldlum in The Fly. It’s a solid comparison and I found myself wondering how much of the quirk was from Parker being a socially-awkward teenager and how much was from some transformed, inhuman way of seeing the world.

Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is better than Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane. I really got sick of Dunst’s ever-distressing damsel. Honestly, I never found her that likable. I would almost say she was a lousy bitch of a girlfriend. But in all fairness, Marc Webb is just better with female love interests. Gwen Stacy may not have been the most thoroughly developed character, but she came off as charming, smart and endearing. I actually believed the relationship between her and Peter and was relieved that she wasn’t quite the MacGuffin we were all expecting.

The tone was perfect. Don’t believe all the “dark and brooding” talk. Sure, he broods in a few parts, but the film is NOT trying to be The Dark Knight. It is grittier than the previous Spider-man movies, but hell, that’s not very hard. High school is an appropriate setting (despite Garfield’s age) and Peter’s angst in this context feels genuine. Also: His changing dynamic with Flash Thompson was also a nice touch.

It implies a larger world of Spider-Man while still working as a complete story. I was really afraid the film would be too busy setting up sequels to give us a proper ending. I’m happy I was wrong. There are some unresolved issues, but we’re given the sense that they really can wait. It’s good that not all cards are shown at once. Norman Osborn is powerful and high up the totem pole. His name is everywhere but you don’t get to see him. (My guess is that they’re saving him for Part 3.)

Likewise, there’s a moment where Peter gets an education in how not busting small criminals can lead him to bigger fish. I like this implication for where the series might go. The cartoons and comics have delved into the whole Spidey vs organized crime angle, but the movies have always been Spidey vs Monster of the Week with a few purse snatchers as a warm up.

Martin Sheen was excellent as Uncle Ben. He was such a convincingly great father figure, I couldn’t believe his real-life son is Charlie Sheen.

THE OKAY:

A soft reboot would’ve been fine. Probably even perfect. A clever montage was all it needed. We wanted to see a Spider-Man who at least had Year One under his belt. They ignored the groans of the masses and retold the entire origin anyway. But you know what? It may not have been necessary, but it’s actually fine.

It was worthwhile largely for the fun of watching him have no control over his powers at the beginning. Because of that, I never felt the need for them to just get on with it.

The web-shooters were good enough, I guess. Meaning that they copped out a little on where he gets the webbing and how he built the devices. But I still prefer this to “He just shoots the shit out of his arm cuz that’s his power now.”

THE BAD:

The Lizard kinda sucked. I wasn’t crazy about the look of the CG monster or his agenda. I didn’t hate him as much as I expected ONLY because Rhys Ifans was fantastic. I did like his various stages of semi-transformation. He really made the mad scientist angle (a more malevolent take on the character) work in a way that I wanted to see how the series handles the other mad scientist villains. But the second that Goomba from the Super Mario Bros movie opens his mouth and talks –> Shitsville.

There were plot holes regarding the movie’s climax. I won’t spoil them, but you’ll know them when you see them. There were definitely some scenes on the cutting room floor. Still, I don’t know if I like the idea of the Lizard even having a master plan. It was all just so damn retro.

I don’t care about the mystery of his parents. I mean, I did for the first half hour. It’s a worthy topic and I guess I’m curious to see where they go with it. But it just comes off as such a weak enticement to stay tuned for the entire new trilogy… which I will probably do regardless.

Sally Field was underused. I know it sounds weird that I’m asking for more Aunt May, considering how many of her sweet grandma moments Raimi shoved down our throats. But with the exception of 2 or 3 nice scenes, she almost felt like a piece of furniture in the Parker household.

And I almost forgot: Quit taking your mask off, Parker! He’s either taking it off or getting unmasked WAY too often. At night on a rooftop – sure. In the sewers – okay. At a place he goes everyday in broad daylight – c’mon! We know who you are, Garfield. It’s your movie! You’re already getting plenty of face time.

OVERALL: (B+)

Many of the critics on the geek sites are being hard on this one. We all wanted it to be “Amazing” but what we got was “Pretty Good.” The elements that “The Amazing Spider-man” gets right really are a breath of fresh air. But every so often, you smell a hint of old ass. I would still see this again, attribute its flaws to growing pains and hope for a sharper sequel. ($20 says it’ll be titled “Web of Spider-Man.”)