Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

I’ll do my best not to give away too many secrets of the movie!

First things first, this is the best movie I have seen in the Theater this year.  Better then Spider-Man, better then Prometheus, better then The Avengers.

Second things second, this is my favorite film in what I call the Dark Knight series, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises.  It is my favorite, but whether or not it’s the actual best, well, there your mileage may vary.  Many are going to like The Dark Knight better, as it’s closer to source material, and some will like Batman Begins because it’s a more traditional comic book movie.  The Dark Knight Rises tries some different things than these two though, and in my opinion, succeeds for it.

Christopher Nolan, the director, drew on several Batman stories from the comics for this one.  The one that strikes me the most is Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.  While it takes little if anything from the actual plot of that story, it feels very much a spiritual brother.  In Returns, Batman puts on the mask again as an old man, years after retiring, to battle the Joker, Two Face, several gangs, and in the end even throws down with Superman.  In Rises, we have a Bruce Wayne who abandoned the Batman persona 8 years prior (at the end of The Dark Knight) who put’s on the mask again to fight the evil terrorist known as Bane.  And evil is about the ONLY word to describe Bane.  The Joker was scary, but Bane is downright vicious.  He thinks nothing of casually breaking necks, and seems to enjoy causing pain and despair even more then death.  The movie also draws heavily from well known Batman stories Knightfalls where Bane breaks Batman’s back, and No Man’s Land which saw Gotham isolated from the world by an earthquake, with Batman the only one keeping order in the city.  In scale, it’s vastly more epic and grand then either of the two movies that came before.  This one feels like it moves beyond the whole vigilante aspect of the first two, presenting us with something bigger.  Another thing this movie does is introduce a large number of new characters, including Bane, Catwoman (though never called Catwoman in the film), and the new characters John Blake and Miranda Tate.  These new characters are juggled to mixed effect with Selina Kyle/Catwoman and John Blake coming across very nicely, but Miranda Tate rather under developed, and at times taking actions that seem somewhat unmotivated (you know, like randomly hopping in bed with Bruce Wayne, cause, you know, we needed to see his vulnerable side…or something)

Okay, so how about returning characters?  We also have Bruce, Alfred, and Commissioner Gordon returning.  Bruce is very different in this one, almost a broken shell of a man.  It’s nice to see Bale play him so differently from the first two, though I’m not entirely sure that the events of The Dark Knight merit him turning into a reclusive hermit and abandoning the Bat.  Alfred injects a good deal of heart into Alfred, and into the movie in general, and it’s a shame to see him disappear half way through the film, but at least he shows up again towards the end, and has his character’s story very well paid off.  Gordon get’s put through the ringer, but Gary Oldman does a very nice job yet again with his understated Gordon.

There are a few plot holes, but they aren’t movie killers, so I won’t go into them at depth.  The biggest has Bruce traveling halfway around the world with no explanation as to how he accomplished it.  As it plays out in the movie, it works fine I guess.  The movie also departs from the comics much more then the previous two, but given Nolan’s previous success with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, I think he’s earned the right to spin things his own way.  I might mention that the movie almost requires a knowledge of the previous two though.  Rises picks up a number of plot threads from the first two, particularly from Batman Begins.  That being said, the three movie considered together very much form a beginning, a middle, and an end, making Nolan’s Batman more of a saga or an epic than any other take on the character.  It’s also worth noting that Rises probably has more in common with Begins, then The Dark Knight.  Thematically at least, it is very much in the same arena as Begins.  I have heard it mentioned in reviews that people feel there is not enough humor in Rises, but I would argue the movie is considerable lighter then The Dark Knight was, especially during the first hour when Bruce is sort of getting back into the game.  A lot of stuff with Selina Kyle/Catwoman is very funny and charming.

The actors across the board do great work, with Hathaway standing out as the new Catwoman.  The only actor who doesn’t seem up to par is Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate, but that is more to do with an under written character then any problem with Ms. Cotillard.

Overall, this one gets 9 out of 10.  It’s a great cap on the Batman series, and it is nice to have such an epic and grand climax, rather then just turning out story after story ala James Bond!

Game Review: Lord of the Rings the Boardgame

Lord of the Rings The Boardgame

Okay, thought I’d try a new kind of review, a boardgame review.  And my first victim, Lord of the Rings: The Boardgame!

This game has actually been out for a while, long enough in fact to jump ships from one publisher to another, to even go out of print at one point, and then come back into print!  Now, the great Fantasy Flight Games publishes their second edition of the game.

First things first, the basics.  This game is for 2-5 players, and should take about an hour to play.  I’d say it’s for low to moderate level gamers.  Ellen and I had no real trouble with the rules, though there were a few vague points.  It’s certainly not as complicated as something like Descent, and the rulebook is actually fairly well written, especially for an FFG game, rulebooks being their Achilles Heel!

The big thing about this game, is competition functions very different then most games.  Where other games pit the players against each other, in LOTR the Boardgame, all the players actually play with each other against the board.  This means either EVERYONE wins, or EVERYONE loses!  Apparently Lord of the Rings was one of the first boardgames to work in this way, though others have been made since, and it’s very fitting given the source.  The basic gist of the game has every player controlling a hobbit in an attempt to destroy the one ring of power.  Essentially, recreating the plot of the novel.  Along the way you can be helped by characters such as Aragorn and Galadriel, or hindered by various events and villains, such as the Shelob.  Gandalf can be called upon in a tight pinch should things get difficult.  And make no mistake, this game is HARD!  This is very in keeping with the source material however, as the quest in the trilogy is depicted as going up against extreme odds.  The game replicates that feel nicely!  We have played more then 10 times now, but have only beat it twice.  Team strategy is very important and the players must work together.  The game includes an interesting rule forbidding players from showing their cards, but allowing free discussion about them.  This may seem like a small thing, but it forces everyone to talk, and prevents a single person from trying to run the show.  I think this game would make for a great team building exercise!  Strategy becomes very important, and the game is all about having to make hard decisions.  Some times, it may actually be to the groups benefit to allow one player to die!  (as long as it’s not the ring bearer, which will automatically result in defeat!).  The strategy has a fairly high learning curve, but you do get better.  Each time we play, we seem to get closer to destroying the ring.  I imagine if Ellen and I get good enough, we’ll up the difficulty (the game includes rules for doing so).

Component wise, this is a Fantasy Flight Games production.  Even being one of their less expensive the titles, everything is high quality and top notch.  The art is particularly lovely, as they hired John How to do the illustrations (he was one of the art designers on the films if you’re unfamiliar with the name)

The game does have a few draw backs.  As noted, you lose much more often then you win, and luck can seem to play too high a role (though the role luck plays diminishes as you learn better strategy).  It can seem a bit samey each time you play, as it will always have the same plot, and a game where you aren’t actually competing against your fellow players won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

Overall, I give it an 8 out of 10.

It’s one of the better games I’ve played, and it takes a theme I enjoy and does it well.  If you ever see it, I highly recommend it, and for less then 30 bucks on Amazon, it is more then worth it!

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

I saw The Amazing Spider-Man over the weekend with my ol’ chum Manny, so here are my thoughts!
It’s been beaten to death online that the movie is unnecessary.  But it’s still true.  This movie teaches us the origins of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, except most of America already knows his origin.  His origins were already explained to us in a movie barely 10 years ago.  We needed ANOTHER Spider-Man origin like we need another Superman origin (oh dang, they’re working on THAT too!)

Okay, that gripe aside, how is the film?  It actually holds up pretty well.  It is not as good as Spider-Man 1 or 2, but it’s still a descent flick in it’s own right, and it’s a helluva lot better then Spider-Man 3.  While it’s not as good as some of the previous Spidey flicks, there ARE things it does better.  There are also things it does worse, and there are things it does…. different.

On the better side of things, characterization (with one glaring exception) and casting.  Sorry Toby, but I think Andrew Garfield fits the role better, and makes for a more believable Spidey.  One thing I liked about Spider-Man here, it takes the whole movie for him to learn something Toby Maguire learns in 10 minutes in the first film.  The Spider-Man mantra, “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”.  While these words aren’t actually spoken in the film, the movie is in large part about him learning this exact lesson.  In Toby’s first outing, his uncle died, and boom, he’d learned his lesson.  Here, he actually has an arc.  Even after his uncle dies, he is more concerned with revenge, then actually taking responsibility for anything.  Seeing him actually grow into a hero rather then just becoming one is nice.  Also appreciated is his new love interest, Gwen Stacey.  Before this film, I was not that up on Spider-Man mythos, but now I see why many people say Gwen was the love of Spidey’s life rather then Mary Jane.  And it doesn’t hurt that she is played by Emma Stone, who is quite frankly a better actress then Kirsten Dunst.  Even better, Andrew and Emma actually have very good chemistry.  Martin Sheen comes off quite well as the new Uncle Ben, and Dennis Leary is great as Captain Stacey, both Gwen’s father and the police officer responsible for catching Spider-Man, who is viewed by the police as a vigilante operating outside the law.
So, bad stuff.  The story does not gel too well.  Much of it feels a little disjointed, and plot threads are left dangling.  It still works for the most part, and the good characterizations mitigate a lot of it, but it ultimately feels like a lot has been cut out, and its pacing is nothing compared to the original.  Also coming off not to good is the villain, The Lizard.  He seems to have no real goal or motivation other then making everyone awesome, which for some reason is done by turning them into lizard people.  He comes across as a shallow copy of Green Goblin from Spider-Man, and is a major week point in the film.

Now, the different stuff, the stuff I’m not sure what to make of.  Spider-Man now has an unrevealed backstory.  His parents worked with Dr. Connors when Spidey was a kid, and discovered something, and then vanished (dying in a plane crash?)  Nothing more then that is really revealed, but the way it’s presented makes it feel like something out of a Harry Potter flick.  Not surprising Steve Kloves is one of the writers of the film (he wrote all but one of the Harry Potter films)  This isn’t necessarily bad, but I have no idea where they are going with it, and the movie doesn’t really say, making us wait for the supposed sequel.  Judging from the post credit sequence, they will be picking this thread up again in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, with perhaps Mysterio as the villain (hard to tell who it’s supposed to be, he is covered in shadow, but his appearance and disappearance suggests Mysterio, and I think that would be awesome)

Like I said, not quite as good as the first two, but it’s strong enough to restart the franchise, so I still recommend it.

Overall, 7 out of 10.

Review: He-man and the Masters of the Universe issue #1

I know MOTU isn’t for everyone, but I grew up with the toys, the cartoon, and comics.  I first started collecting the toys when I was in the hospital as a 3 year old after my burn accident.  Apparently (though I don’t remember it) one of the times they took me out of my room for one of my treatments (which were unpleasant to say the least) balling I screamed at my dad that I wanted Beastman.  Why I screamed that, I don’t know, but he got me the Beastman action figure, and almost everyone who came to visit brought me a He-Man figure of some sort.  I built up a nice little collection of them!  Since then the toy company has periodically tried to bring them back, The New Adventures of He-Man in the 80’s, a new cartoon, toy and comic in the early 00’s, and now they have a line of “collectors” action figures, and starting the 4th of July, a brand new comic returning to there original publisher, DC comics.  It has a bit of competition, as I thought the 2002 comic was hands down the high point for the franchise.  So how does the new comic stack up?

Well, first I’ll look at the art.  Often art can make or break a comic, and in this case it’s very hit and miss.  It’s not terrible, but it’s not consistent either.  There are a few gorgeous pictures of Beastman in the issue, including one really stand out splash page.  The art however changes from one panel to the next, and some pictures are real angular and lacking detail.  The first couple pages (the dream sequence) are out right terrible.  Another thing to note is the redesigns on the characters.  Some of the colors are changed, some have new oddly segmented armor, and almost all of them seem to have random patches of scale mail armor added, and all I can say is WHY?  If you are going to do redesigns, at least do GOOD redesigns (see the 2002 comic).  It’s no surprise that the best picture in the book is Beastman who’s design unlike the rest is almost unchanged.  On the the plus side however, the cover is spectacular, and about as iconic and quintessential He-Man as you can possibly get.  If only the rest of the book had stuck stayed on par with the cover and the pictures of Beastman.  A few small bits I did like, the basic design of “woodsman” Adam, and the brief look we get of his father (apparently Randor??  though I could be wrong)  Oh, and the COMPLETE over haul of Teela into a generic blond in a metal bikini?  Are you KIDDING ME?  What lame brain came up with that?

Now, onto the story, which ironically, can ALSO make or break a comic.  While it is nothing stand out here, we’re on much better footing then the art.  The basic gist is that at some point, Skeletor won, and somehow erased everyone’s mind, leaving Adam thinking he’s a lowly wood cutter with no memory of being He-Man.  This starts to change however when he has dreams of his former life, and sees a mysterious falcon in the woods.  This spurs him on a sort of self identity quest, and he attempts to leave his forest, only to run into Beastman who is apparently supposed to prevent him from leaving– battle ensues!  Nothing complicated, and not great, but it does have a sort of classic fantasy feel to it, and better, it allows a reader to follow Adam and discover the world of Eternia for the first time through his eyes, making this extremely accessible to someone new to the world.  Apart from that though, this is just a small piece of the story, and I can’t give a more detailed and thoughtful review until I’ve read a few more issues, and get a clearer picture of where they are going.  Over all a solid, if not exactly stellar opening to what COULD be a very promising story.

Final Grade – 3.5 out of 5 stars

Review of Prometheus

FINALLY saw Prometheus.  Very interesting movie.  While I loved it, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.  Unlike most big budget summer flicks these days, not everything is spelled out.  Some pieces of info are only given in fleeting, blink and you’ll miss it moments.  Some pieces you have to figure out by putting the other pieces together.  And some pieces you are just left to guess at.  This is a movie you have to think about to make sense of, and in the end, some of what you take away will only be interpretation.  I really enjoyed the ambiguity, but some will hate it.  For my money, it lets me play a part in the making of the story.

Acting wise, no one really comes across as a stinker here, there are a few who come across a bit bland though.  Shaw is certainly capable, but no where near as compelling as Sigourney was in the mostly comprable part.  That might be more in her character though then the actor.  Her love interest was really flat though.  Fortunately there are also a few really stand out performances.  Michael Fassbender is the obvious show stealer as the ships android David who has a sinister agenda.  Charlize Theron as Vickers also turns in great work, even if her character is a written a little on the nose.  My top pick though goes to Captain Janek played by Idris Elba (you may remember him as Heimdall from Thor.  He has a much smaller part, a sort of blue collar esque captain of the ship who contrasts all of the more scientisty types and corporate folk.  He puts an amazing amount of heart into his small role.

Directing wise, the beginning feels a little rushed, but then things settle out a bit, giving a little uneveness to the pacing, but nothing too bad.  The art direction is among some of Ridley’s best, and stands up well with the likes of Alien, Bladerunner, and Legend.  This is MUCH better then the last Ridley Scott film I caught, Robin Hood.

Then it all comes down to script.  Wow.  Like I said before, this is a film you really have to work at, and in the end you even have to come up with some of the answers yourself.  The film is very interested in themes of religion, though it does hide some of this.  We learn (on Christmas no less) that the “Engineers” who presumably genetically engineered all life on Earth, 2000 years ago decided to destroy humanity, but some terrible catastrophe prevented them from doing so.  Hmmmmmm, what could have happened 2000 years ago that would upset our creator???  The script I think is going to be the sticking point.  I loved it.  It doesn’t DIRECTLY tie in to the Alien movies, but it does reveal more of the mythology…  IE we still don’t know how the Aliens got on the planet in Alien (this takes place on a different planet, with presumably a different though similar ship, but it DOES tell us more about who the beings are that presumably created the Aliens, and we learn us too).  This is a different story, but the connection is still there.

Over all, I think a 4-4.5 out of 5 stars is in order, with the caveat that some people will absolutely HATE this movie due to it’s drenching in ambiguity.  I’m just not one of those people!

P.S.  If something is coming right at you to squash you, don’t keep running forward, run to the side!!!  Classic hollywood blunder!

Review of The Avengers

It’s been a long time since i’ve written a movie review, and I know Avengers has been out for a week now, but still I felt like puttin up my thoughts.

I’m going to have to buck with popular opinion on this one.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I still liked it, but it sure doesn’t top out the Marvel Movie Universe films for me.  I think it actually goes toward the bottom, above Iron Man 2, but below the rest (that’s right, I even place The Incredible Hulk above this).

Okay, let’s get the painful stuff out of the way first.  My biggest issue, and I admit that there’s not much that could be done as it’s pretty much the very nature of the film, is there are so many characters that none get explored very much, and the story is particularly flat.  It goes something like this, Bad guy (Loki) shows up with generic “plan” to conquer or something.  Bad a$$ (Nick Fury) forms team to stop bad guy.  The team can’t get along, and there squabbles enable Loki to….um…..further whatever it is he’s doing.  Then all hell breaks lose, but the team comes together to save the day.  That actually makes it sound even more complicated then it plays out!

The nature of the Marvel universe has always been one of flawed super heroes, and they make a go of it here.  Perhaps it’s an attempt at “drama” but the way it comes across is several caricatures that all have an issue of some sort, and they all try to “work them out”, I.E., an hour and a half of grown men (and a woman) bickering until the big showdown!  Also of note, the utterly BLAND music.  Terrible score!

Okay, now to the good stuff!  While the characters are underdeveloped, and the story is by nature shallow, all the actors come across fairly nicely.  If you’ve seen the other Marvel Movie Universe films, the characters work for the most part.  While they are undeveloped in this movie IF you’ve watched the others, they work just fine.  Even Scarlett Johanson is okay acting wise here, and I usually don’t care for her (HATED her in Iron Man 2).  I think the director probably gets credit there for pulling good performances all around.  On special note is Bruce Banner/The Hulk.  He comes across as the only actual “character” in the film as opposed to a caricature.  They really cracked the Hulk, which 2 films down already shows him to be a hard character to figure out.  The action, expertly done.  You can actually tell what’s going on.  Great special effects, and good dialogue.  Seriously, Joss Whedon was born to write dialogue, and his skills shine through on that one!  The film also has something lacking in a lot of movies these days, fun!  So many films are so dower these days, and a sense of fun is a real breath of fresh air!

So, final score, 3.5 out of 5 stars!

On a side note, here is how I rate the Marvel Universe films from best to worst.

Thor

Iron Man

Captain America

The Incredible Hulk

The Avengers

Iron Man 2 (a long way below the rest)