Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

(M) ★★★

Director: Christopher Nolan.

Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman.

"Why do you sound like you've been gargling gravel?"
"Why do you sound like Sean Connery talking into a coffee mug?"
"HOW many good third movies in a franchise can people name?" Christopher Nolan asked rhetorically during interviews in the lead-up to making The Dark Knight Rises.

There are a few, of course, (Toy Story 3, Back To The Future 3, The Last Crusade and The Bourne Ultimatum to unnecessarily answer a rhetorical question), but Nolan was painfully aware of the difficulties in following up two incredibly strong movies.

The Dark Knight Rises is certainly no dud, but it's something of a disappointment compared to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

Now, before you start the death threats (critic aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes had to suspend comments on the film after reviewers who gave negative critiques were the targets of disturbing levels of vitriol from aggrieved Batfans) know that TDKR is good but flawed.

It's hard to review this without giving up spoilers, so we'll keep the plot talk to a minimum. Basically, Batman takes on Bane, a character from the comics who is not only a match for Batman physically but also mentally.

And that's all we'll say about the plot.

It's great to see Bane on the screen and Hardy does well with the difficult job of giving a nuanced performance with half his face covered by a strange kind of breathing apparatus.

The other addition is Selena Kyle (Hathaway) aka Catwoman (although no one says it) who is great and brings some much-needed spark to the film, even if her character does seem slightly shoe-horned in there. Likewise for Gordon-Levitt as young "hot head" cop John Blake. In previous Batman films, Nolan has juggled his cast and characters well, but here, it's not so effective. Selena Kyle and John Blake feel like they could have been removed from the story and it would have detracted little.

Such a move might have created a succinct story, with TDKR's biggest flaw being the sprawl of its story. A second viewing might be necessary but it feels like there are plotholes aplenty and that Nolan and his scripting sibling Jonathan Nolan may have outsmarted themselves. I'll reserve the right to stand corrected after multiple viewings, but after one screening, it seems like TDKR doesn't totally make sense.

This is particularly apparent in the first and final acts, where character motivations are cloudy, the passage of time is displayed unevenly, and the film's themes of rich-and-poor and rising above adversity get a little muddied.

Having said all that, there are still some great thrills and a lot to like.

Bale takes Bruce Wayne/Batman to new levels of vulnerability and the rest of the cast are top-notch, particularly Caine, who has long been the heart of the series.

Seeing Batman versus Bane is awesome, watching Batman and Catwoman in action together is a giddy comic-book thrill, and a set-piece involving the destruction of a football field is out of this world.

The opening scene involving a plane hijacking is also impressive in a 007 kind of way, even if it makes no sense what-so-ever from a plotting point of view.

In terms of bringing closure to the series - given that Nolan has said "no more" - TDKR works, even if it infuriatingly leaves a door open for the franchise to continue. It's not the ideal note to end on, but it's still in tune.

Maybe it was just watching TDKR immediately after Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, or maybe it's a film that needs repeat viewings, but I can't shake the feeling that it doesn't live up to its predecessors or its hype while still being mildly interesting and enjoyable.

Friday, 15 June 2012


(PG) ★★★★

Director: Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman.

Cast: (voices of) Kelly McDonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Julie Walters.

Hair as Film Symbolism 101

IT'S generally accepted that all the Pixar movies are great... except Cars 2.

With a strike rate of 11-1, there is a huge amount of pressure on each subsequent release - will it live up to that gold-class Pixar standard or will it be another Cars 2?

The good news is Brave is a success. It's not of the same calibre as Wall-E, Up or The Incredibles - bona fide classics that will be watched for generations to come - but it's a stellar piece of family entertainment that harks back to the classic Disney fairytales, while adding some interesting twists along the way.

Brave is the tale of Merida (McDonald), a Scottish princess more at home with a bow and arrow in her hand than strapped into a corset and learning how to curtsey.

But as her pushy mother (Thompson) and tradition dictate, Merida is to be married to the first-born son of one of three other clans that share an uneasy alliance with her family.

Determined to pursue her own destiny, the fiery-haired princess flees the castle and discovers some powerful magic in the forest that may change her future forever.

Amid the awesomeness of the previous Pixar films (except Cars 2), strong female characters have been scarce - only Mrs Incredible and Violet, Dory the fish, and Jessie the cowgirl stand out. But here, Pixar are making amends, and it's girl power all the way, perhaps even going too far in the other direction, with the male characters in Brave a gallery of weird-looking buffoons - the nose of King Fergus (Connolly) is particularly distractingly abnormal.

One of the key themes is the mother-daughter relationship between Queen Elinor and Merida, which is wonderfully scripted. The Queen is a well-rounded character, a woman all too aware of the pressures Merida will face in the future, but unable to balance them against putting too much expectation on her daughter in the here-and-now. It makes for a realistic relationship that's bound to strike chords.

Merida is a stunning piece of work too. As free-flowing and unruly as her painstakingly animated red locks, she's the Disney anti-thesis - the young girl that doesn't want to be a princess and who is most certainly not searching for her Prince Charming. Merida is a refreshing character in a cinematic landscape where interesting female characters seem few and far between.

Self-determination, fate and destiny, the tyranny of tradition, and the pressure of expectation are among the themes that make this a rich film for all ages, while the Scottish setting adds some interesting spice to the mix.

Brave is not as dazzling or as unique as many of their previous films, but it's good enough, funny enough and smart enough to bump Pixar's strike rate up to 12-1.